The October 12 episode of What Could Possibly Go Right? was a dialogue between Vicki Robin and Kamea Chayne that touched on the fundamental questions What is life? and What do people want? A single answer to both of these is found in a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zonewhich was a translation of the French adaptation of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce directed by Robert Enrico.
The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene where he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the clip also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched The Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” and this is why the clip is so powerful: it represents the fulfillment of people’s ultimate desire, which is to be livin’.
It is most significant that the film’s depiction of livin’ isn’t footage of the man, but of living things around him accompanied by the lyrics “In all the world. He moves around. He walks around…” Until recently our acquaintance with livin’ has been limited to incomprehensible personal experiences and artistic representations, but now, as all of life has become endangered, understanding of it is advancing. Naturalist Craig Holdrege derives from Aldo Leopold’s literary “Thinking Like a Mountain” a key concept. In Thinking Like a Planthe writes, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”
Leopold’s essay relates the overall vital impact of a population of wolves on a mountain, something we can readily grasp. Moreover, now living in the Anthropocene, we are painfully aware of the destructive, indeed self-destructive, presence of humans on the earth. But what would a positive human presence look like? As an illustration of such a mode of existence I offer an experience of my own in a neighborhood years ago. My husband and I owned a house whose back yard bordered a small creek, on the opposite bank of which was a high tree-covered bluff. The beautiful scenery provided by the hillside contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home, but one day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums along the far bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction looming over our home and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view of the bluff had become a cherished part of me. Determined to stop the development but knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house at the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every one of the houses, seeking to gather their residents behind me. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to their neighbors next door, referring to them by name, and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I re-walked it.
My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my home the hub of the neighborhood, where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a living community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna.
My experience exemplifies Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking and forming bonds with the residents. Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. Our overall consciousness was love – awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active also, for in being there as objects of sight, physical bodies and organisms the bluff with its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too. Although it was driven by the fear that the development would materialize, my activity was exhilarating, for I was truly livin’.
In this experience I found an ideal for human life that is now supported by leading alternatives addressing climate change and the larger environmental crisis. David Korten proposes a global order of sustainable small communities, while Richard Heinberg has just amplified the call for degrowth. Going beyond capitalism and socialism solidarity economics, which figures in the Green New Deal, adds a formula for social justice to the vision.
While Holdrege captures livin’ in his notion of presence, Leopold bids us specifically to think like a mountain. This means viewing things as so many living component presences that together compose larger living wholes. Thinking of particular mountains from which wolves had been eradicated he observed that they had been severely degraded. Their condition led him to conclude that once people think like a mountain they must proceed to act multi-dimensionally, taking parts and wholes into consideration to secure the lives of all. This is the perspective of the whole, which is also reflected in that of each part, thus as a person functions as a constituent presence they serve the whole.
It’s clear that livin’ isn’t a solo act, for it involves at least a community of people consciously acting to create and sustain for themselves a total living community. At this time we face a plethora of crises – climate change, loss of biodiversity, mass human migration, pandemic, inequality, injustice and subversion of democracy. The situation presents both extraordinary peril and opportunity for everyone to attain the greatest livin’ in history by coming together and acting multi-dimensionally as presences in their communities, nations and the world to achieve the ecological civilization. This especially means everyone asserting their presence in these bodies as fully engaged citizens.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I conclude it with comments on another one of the same vintage. Luis Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though they have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a self-destructive mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former people must first realize that they wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
In 1961 French director Robert Enrico made a film adaptation of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.1 It won honors at Cannes and the Academy Awards, and in 1964 it was aired in translation on The Twilight Zone.2 The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene in which he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man, the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree’s canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the film also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched the Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Compared with the livin’ represented in the film our lives hardly measure up. In this essay I describe the ways in which the present mode of human existence radically diminishes and threatens our lives then explain what we must do to become. livin’ people in a livin’ world.
We’re Presently Dyin’
Recently reading Jeremy Lent’s article “Nature Is Not a Machine – We Treat It So at Our Peril”3 brought to mind my early encounter with factory farming. When Animal Factories by Peter Singer and James Mason4 was published in 1980 it caused a stir in my workplace at the time which was a university poultry science research center. Although as a secretary I had minimal contact with the birds in the houses and laboratories I was well aware of the conditions and procedures conducted in them. A copy of the book was passed around, and I read it, receiving a unique impression. Because its description of factory farming was not news to me, I read the book not as an exposé of animal cruelty but rather as an allegory of human life expressing how people are confined and deprived of the ability to act in accordance with their nature. The pandemic has underscored this reality, as it has prevented many people from going to their places of confinement – workplaces, day cares and schools – while others have been unable to leave theirs – nursing homes and prisons. People too are treated in an instrumental manner.
Global neoliberal capitalism has turned the world into a virtually total machine, with all things serving as parts of that machine in opposition to their vital natures. Its anti-life character originated with the Cold War and was brought to light then by Herbert Marcuse in his book One Dimensional Man.5 The over-arching threat at that time was nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., a catastrophe that never occurred. Today’s challenges – climate change along with natural resource depletion – are not only more dire but also more certainly devastating, unless humanity acts fast to reverse their progress. Apart from the difference between the looming disasters then and now, Marcuse’s analysis is as true today as it was in 1964.
As the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. mounted rival stockpiles of nuclear weapons they also competed economically, aiming to display the most desirable model for human life. The U.S. was able to attain a high level of employment and public contentment with ever-growing consumer and defense sector activity, all in service to the Cold War effort. Marcuse characterized the race as an irrational frenzied pursuit ultimately for death. In our time relentless economic growth is justified as staying competitive in the global economy and maintaining domestic employment that provides a satisfactory standard of living. This time the ultimate end of the race is planetary death.
The One-Dimensional Human World
Like the earlier one, the present system is a virtually total whole that functions like a machine with inexorable momentum. Everything in the world is construed as a part of the machine, having a particular instrumental value and functioning in service to the whole. People are atomized as they are defined as units of human capital performing micro-specialized work which, they are told, constitutes their “self-actualization.” Increasingly, rather than being the masters of their technology, they are its attendants or slaves. As agents of neoliberal free choice people construct, then exercise their “individuality” to separate and distinguish themselves from others. Such “individualization” is in fact a flight from the standardization imposed by the God-almighty market and has the effect of building alienation within the society.
Insofar as a person is totally defined as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus they are, according to Marcuse, a one-dimensional man or woman. As a consequence of being such a part of the machine and like a machine, their lives are greatly impoverished. “Minimal self” is the phrase Christopher Lasch6 coined to describe the withering consequence of persistent fear on people’s thoughts and actions. Because the system’s constraints are enforced, people fear stepping or falling outside of it, while their lives are extremely fragmented and compressed in myriad other ways. Zygmunt Bauman speaks of living in “pointillist time,”7 a series of disconnected moments of experience, while nothing is permanent in what for him is “liquid modernity”8 that renders relationships particularly short-term. Considering work, Richard Sennett traces how it has gone from life-long careers with the same company to gigs with a succession of employers and different kinds of work.9 Where all is ephemeral what is valued is stimulation, an experience Kierkegaard described as essentially momentary. In Either/Or10 he contrasted romantic love exemplified by Don Giovanni’s mille et trois seductions with conjugal love which occupies and develops over years. Because of the difference in the time of the two kinds of love the romantic variety especially lends itself to artistic representation, while the other absolutely defies it. The stress on self-promoting performance and novelty in one-dimensional life reinforces its liquid and pointillist characteristics.
People are shaped by their environments, so the one-dimensional world conditions them to be one-dimensional people. A huge factor in this is language, and Noam Chomsky persistently points out the media’s “manufacture of consent” with ubiquitous, subtle and insidious propaganda. Marcuse goes deeper, explaining how most common language is one-dimensional, reflecting one-dimensional patterns of thought that contrast with open, questioning and exploring dialectical thinking.11 The abbreviated forms are germane to modern science and advertising and revolve around absolute declarative constructions purporting to express matters of scientific law or facts. Another feature derived from science is the routine translation of “subjective” language into “objective” terms. We are all familiar with the principal techniques of propaganda and the disdain for “subjective” language, for they are reflected in our own behavior. Beyond these practices however, truncated one-dimensional language has other far-reaching and harmful consequences.
Our speech patterns are largely copied from media in which the sound byte rules. Absent from one-dimensional language are the elements of dialectical language that include relations, context and Marx’s favorite, negation. One significant relation is order of priority, for people commonly blast forth today’s headline as if yesterday never was and tomorrow will never be. An example is “Abortion rights are it!” in response to which I think “What about voting rights? What about climate?” In being one-dimensional oppositional language handicaps itself, for as Chomsky observed
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.12
Even more than by its content, one-dimensional discourse is restricted by its conventional style, structure and grammar.
Progressive activism illustrates one-dimensional thinking in being divided into so many narrowly focused campaigns and groups while the whole system is a sure recipe for disaster. There is the belief that doing a bit of good in one area reverberates for good throughout, and while this may be true, it doesn’t transform the system. Individual survival continues to depend on collective self-destruction which is more rapidly being realized with resource loss, mass migration, political destabilization, increased repression and inequality. Meanwhile, a new arms race is underway with China, from which, absurdly, we import most of our consumer products.
Transcending One-Dimensional Existence
Marcuse portrays the one-dimensional system as total, something that can’t be fixed but rather must be transcended. Historically the vehicle for cultural transcendence was art, which offered ideals and visions of paradise and utopia.13 Transcending art, he says, is specifically its high forms previously enjoyed only by the privileged classes. In our time such art has been quite vulgarized as, for example famous classical music is heard accompanying children’s cartoons. Becoming commonplace and integrated into mass consumer culture has destroyed the transcending quality of high art and with it, he writes, people’s sole avenue of escape.
Nevertheless at this time the threat of its end has succeeded in sacralizing nature, making it both an idol and an actual realm of transcendence. Marcuse failed to foresee this, as he maintained a strictly instrumental view of nature. To his credit though he advocated human population degrowth at a time when globally our species numbered less than half its count today!14Nature is now our inspiration and model, so having defined the problem as a more or less total one-dimensional system, I now turn to explain life, specifically livin’ which is the object of the livin’ man’s desire.
Livin’ Is Presence
Above I asserted that livin’ is a matter of being immersed in a living world, which means that an individual’s livin’ is continuous with their environment. While this notion is expressed in the view that all life is one or simply that all is one, these formulations fail to address the incredibly complex structure of life that is everywhere both one and many. This duality is clarified in Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”15 and Craig Holdrege’s commentary on it in his Thinking Like a Plant.
Leopold laments how mountain ecosystems have been severely degraded by deer following the human destruction of their wolf populations. The howl of the wolf, he writes, fully penetrates the landscape, expressing that animal’s pervasive presence which conditions everything organic and inorganic that belongs to its habitat. Holdrege takes this observation literally, remarking, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”16 Although wolves especially attract our attention, what is true of them is also true of their prey the deer, other species, indeed everything that belongs to a mountain. Each thing may be regarded as forming a dimension or layer of life with greater or less extension over that mountain and all of which constitute its total life.
Applying this conception to humans means that we have a presence in the world as well for better or worse. Leopold’s and Holdrege’s reflections trade on the dual denotations of “wolf” as both the species and an individual. A single wolf, the last of its kind on a mountain, would have a different impact from a population of a size appropriate for the ecosystem. So in making the comparison with humans, it is evident that their significant presence in the world is that of the aggregate. Still, although individuals generally feel like tiny powerless specks in the total scheme of things, each of them has a considerable presence within a certain range.
Delving deeper into the meaning of “presence,” we understand that in the case of the wolf, one need not be close to a deer and seen by it in order to have an effect, for the herbivore is always wary that a wolf might approach it, and its whole behavior reflects this ever-present threat. Leopold relates how the presence of wolves determines the size of the deer population and the kind of vegetation living on a mountain. Conversely, the wolves’ behavior, indeed their very presence, is conditioned by the presence of the deer population and ultimately that of each individual one, for the wolf population doesn’t feed off the deer population, but rather individual wolves kill and eat individual deer.
Similarly, a person’s presence is their behavior which conditions the objects they affect in their environment, for instance a person owning a home which is recognized as private property that others do not enter. That individual may have a yard with a lawn which they keep mowed, preventing weeds, trees and wildlife from coming to inhabit it. While the person’s presence conditions other people and things, their presence is similarly conditioned by a multitude of other objects as each thing forms a layer in a certain place, and altogether these constitute a spatially and temporally continuous functional whole. Like with an ecosystem, this model for humans is readily imagined in the case of a small self-sufficient community. Otherwise to the extent that a person’s presence is dispersed, its space is as well, possibly resembling an amoeba that is far more pseudopods than main body. In our time of work in places far away from home communities, not to mention vast electronic communication, the presence of individual humans is both spatially and temporally discontinuous, indeed scattered.
Regardless, wherever a person is they fill that place with their presence, and this is manifest in their experience. I see the things around me as a three-dimensional panorama of visual images surrounding the image of my body. My visual perception extends around my body and constitutes my presence as a seeing subject which intersects and conjoins with likewise extended present objects in their visible capacities to produce images of them in my extended consciousness. Being extensions of me, images belong to and are organic parts of me in a way that is analogous to that in which parts of my body belong to me and are mine. My consciousness of external objects is not limited to sense perceptions, for I also have intuitions of their natures, and these, like sense perceptions, are located where the objects in their intuitable capacities and I as an intuiting subject intersect. Like sense perceptions, my intuitions are extensions of and belong to me.
The space of my perceptions and intuitions is not the same as that of my body or external objects insofar as these exist independently in a solid form and arrayed in what we understand as objective space, as it is perspectival and private to me. It does however evidently exist within the objective space as subjects and objects intersect within it and there is an orderly correlation of spatial relations between the two. It is to be noted that “objective” space is a map or picture drawn from the evidence of human perception.
My account expands our understanding of presence, revealing how experience is a matter of objects entering the lives of subjects as subjects simultaneously enter the lives of objects. When the intersection of lives produces images and intuitions, these belong to the subject as extensions of it while also being extensions of the objects, for the subjects and objects are conjoined in the images or intuitions. The object’s particular function in such a relation makes it part of the subject’s life. Understanding a thing to be the unity of all its functions, its presence can be defined as its action of entering into the lives of other things and becoming or being parts of them. A wolf enters into the life of a deer through the sound of its howl which modifies the deer’s life with a sense of fear, movements to protect itself and the creation or reinforcement of memories. Meanwhile deer enter into the wolf’s life insofar as its movements are guided by the scents, sounds, images and memories produced by them.
My mention of memory raises the factor of lived time. In speaking of presence and experience I have emphasized space – the space they occupy and extend over. But the ultimate subject is an entity’s life which is spread about through its functions, making visual images and intuitions parts of a person’s life along with the actions of living in their house, working in their office and so forth. All interaction between things involves presence since each thing conditions the other as, for example, when I stand on the ground my feet press against it while it simultaneously presses against my feet. Because the lives of things continue over time, repeated and sustained interactions assume larger roles in those lives.
How I Began Livin’
This reality was forcefully impressed upon me in a NIMBY battle in which I was involved many years ago. My husband and I owned a house, behind which was a small creek on the opposite bank of which was a beautiful high tree-covered bluff that contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home. One day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums on that bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction mere feet from my property, looming over it and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view and intuition of the bluff, through which I had a vital connection with the site, had become cherished parts of me. While the initial response of the neighbors whose properties bordered the creek was that you can’t fight city hall, I was determined to stop the development. Knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house on the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. It was further an officially designated city neighborhood with a then-inactive neighborhood association. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every house in the neighborhood, seeking to gather their residents behind me to oppose the development. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to the residents next door, referring to them by name and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I then re-walked it. My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. In the course of the campaign we learned that what I call the bluff was not a natural formation at all but was rather a great pile of fill material that years earlier had been dumped over the ridge above it. As it created the bluff, the dumping also shifted the creek much closer to the homes on the opposite bank.
Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my property the hub of the neighborhood where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna. So unified, this total community became an object of intuition for me, with its elements that included the bluff and me being intuited as parts of the whole and indivisibly united within that whole. I ceased to regard the view and intuition of the bluff as mine and now claimed them, in fact the bluff itself, as ours, organic parts of our total indivisible living community.
My experience vividly illustrates Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking, organizing and forming bonds with the neighbors. Further, like the wolves, the people acted to protect its natural features. Overall consciousness of the unified activity was love, awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active as well, for in being there, in being objects of sight and intuition and as physical bodies and organisms the bluff and its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too.
Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. This was no small feat, as the matter dragged on for several months while babies were born, personal conflicts and threats of defection arose. At its peak the unity was a beautiful thing, something which I have subsequently observed coming into being in other groups that unfortunately have tended to dissolve or devolve into cliques.
What I have described was a powerful experience, the like of which is related by other people in particularly intense activist efforts. Sartre and de Beauvoir found existential freedom in their engagement with La Resistánce, and at the time I shared their sense of deliverance, feeling rather like Dante that I had emerged from the dark wood of society’s false construction of reality. What I had achieved was living consciousness which is opposed to the life-denying one-dimensional outlook that dominates our culture.
The Place and Time of Livin’
My mind was permanently changed by the endeavor, and I have ever since regarded my visual images and intuitions as extensions of me literally existing in the space around my body, being parts of my life, belonging to me and through which I am conjoined with their objects. Acknowledging that the latter possess a measure of separate existence and autonomy I further view them, like myself, as parts of the community, nature and the world. This viewpoint drives my continual activism for the environment, democracy and many other campaign objectives, and it is the basis of my fundamental belief that other people’s inactivity or limited engagement is largely due to their lack of living connection with their community. I frequently repeat Grace Lee Boggs’ words “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”17 Our current culture pulverizes humanity, in fact the world, into innumerable separate fragments. Under neoliberalism people regard themselves as agents of free choice in all matters, so, in pointillist time, they are continually deciding anew what they will do, for example, watch television or attend a rally to save democracy.
In Thinking Like a Plant Holdrege describes the expansive multi-dimensional unity of plants with the things around them – the soil, water and multitude of other organisms. Unlike plants, animals are mobile, but they have and are bound to habitats. For some animals these are vast or far-flung, but they are nevertheless communities, for species that migrate across land or through the air or water must still eat, drink and breathe along the way. Their migration moreover carries them between their primary seasonal territories or waters in which they have a presence even in their absence, for the effects of their activity remain when they leave.
Plants and animals superbly demonstrate that the life of an individual involves vital connections with its place and everything in it. Each one is an extended presence or layer of the indivisible whole living place and as such parts they serve their own interests, those of each other and that of the whole. Obviously this involves trade-offs, as animals and pathogens consume and prey upon plants and other animals, but this is all for the purpose of perpetuating themselves, others and the whole.
This aspect of life is negated in current one-dimensional human life for two very disturbing reasons: First, the principle of neoliberalism isn’t just every man for himself, but universal competition, truly the war of all against all. Second, as the condition Marcuse diagnosed persists, the whole system’s destiny is massive destruction and death. While it is headed for doom, the people within it are not only radically diminished, each one’s activity contributes to the final demise.
Having explored the continuous, multi-dimensional spatial aspect of life, I now turn to explain its temporal nature. I have mentioned Bauman’s conceptions of “pointillist time” and the “liquid” character of our lives. Another term that has come into currency is “nowism” which refers to an attitude by which the world is viewed as being created anew at every moment, dismissing the past and the future. These positions don’t merely conflict with the truth of biological time, they negate that time, which is not an external structure in which things exist but is rather the very propagation of life. We commonly think of time in a way that is analogous to the way in which we conceive of space – as a bare surface or empty container. But that is an abstraction, because there is no such space, rather only place which is occupied by innumerable presences forming a single total indivisible living presence. In the same abstract manner we speak of time as a quantity, a period, even “space” of time. Aristotle defined time as the measure of motion: an hour, for example is the period in which the little hand moves from one numeral to the next on the face of a clock. But such uniform motion is also alien to the functioning of organisms, whose time is their creative continuance in which they persist in ever-newly modified forms, temporally and spatially indivisible. Exhibiting duration their entire histories are continually carried into each successive present moment of their lives.
There are thus two aspects of biological time – an organism’s progressive development and the retention of its past, which is continually absorbed into every new present configuration. These phenomena are what we commonly understand as maturation and aging which are particularly evident in higher life forms including humans. As we grow into adulthood then age, we continually build a living legacy, for our bodies are ongoing records of everything they have ever done or has had done to them. What I do at this moment is conditioned, for example, by my act of eating breakfast this morning, for that literally fuels it, as each meal fuels each day’s action day after day after… Our environment is also such a record of our activity, a living legacy as well because as we make our marks on the world our lives are extended into and continued in it. This is most evident with one’s offspring, for whose well-being one naturally has as much or more concern as for one’s own. Life is fully ongoing, so even if a particular individual has no direct descendants, by nature their activity serves the continued life of the environment that sustains them.
These facts of life are reflected in people’s normal conscious desire to create and have legacies. For Sennett satisfaction as an employee involves building a legacy through long service and promotion in a single workplace. He points also to the durable products created with pride by individual craftsmen which contrast with rapidly disposable stuff mass-produced by impersonal teams and operations that are highly automated or geographically dispersed.18 Although the premier legacies would seem to be achievements that make history, nature speaks resoundingly in people’s common satisfaction and sense of fulfillment with children, grandchildren and other living things that they have brought into existence or preserved. These values tend to become especially conscious when their objects are threatened with destruction or actually perish, as evidenced by the profound grief of parents when a child dies, the poignance of The Cherry Orchard as well as the passion with which campaigns to protect natural places and things are carried on.
Satisfaction, indeed joy, is felt by gardeners when their plants come into flower or fruition, and the degree of this pleasure is proportional to the length of time it took them to bring about the result. A mature perennial garden produces greater delight in its creator than one planted just this season with annuals. The length of duration makes a difference in a way that is comparable to the aging of wine which produces progressively complex, full-bodied and deeply pleasurable taste sensations. Time isn’t the only factor in the enjoyment of a legacy, as the scale and intricacy of one’s effort figure in it as well.
To the extent that one interacts with other things their life is conjoined with them, expanding and deepening one’s presence in the present and into the future, enriching their legacy. One’s own performance and pleasure are compounded when the activity is shared with other people, as in gardening together individuals not only work with the plants to bring them into fruition for themselves, but also establish and maintain friendly relations with each other. In this way each person’s legacy consists of both the garden and the society of the gardeners, which combined form a single and comprehensive whole life. I underscore life because the purpose of the whole endeavor is to sustain the lives of each plant, each individual person, the garden as a whole and the community of gardeners, all of which constitute the single whole life.
Restoring the Livin’ World
This is the model of life, but of course, actual lives are not so contrived or limited in reach. Regardless, it is diametrically opposed to the order in which we are presently living wherein the action of the whole and of every part is directed at destruction. Shifting to a life-affirming system requires that people, in the words of Bernie Sanders, “come together” and work in cooperation to create a world in which each part supports the life of every other part and that of the whole. Doing this is now urgent just to preserve life from the ravages of climate change and mass extinction. Indeed these crises have awakened us to the reality that livin’ today is global cooperative human action to serve and regenerate life on earth. Being the greatest crisis in the history of humanity, it is at the same time the greatest opportunity for each person to live to the maximum degree by dedicating themselves to the effort. This moment also brings about true understanding insofar as people come to know their own lives as shared with the people and things around them, all serving each other and life as a whole.
This last is a general idea that is presently widely shared, however it not sufficient for achieving the change that is necessary, which is to put an end to the whole one-dimensional mode of existence. Such total transformation has innumerable parts, one of which is an entirely different world view. Einstein said, “If we want to change the world we have to change our thinking… We must learn to see the world anew.” In this essay and in others published on my website I present a new life-affirming account of the world and the role of humans in it. Such thinking is essential, and it includes a new political economy, various proposals for which are now appearing at an accelerating pace.
I leave the detail of these schemes to the experts and limit myself to assessing their consistency with my philosophy. The core idea that best fits it is presented in David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy: from Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth which calls for a global order of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”19 Recently Richard Heinberg20 has amplified Korten’s argument for degrowth, while programs for sustainability are multiplying under such labels as “regenerative culture” and “circular economy.” Meanwhile a whole new model has emerged which is set forth in Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor’s Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter.21 Moving beyond capitalism and socialism, these authors advocate a system that promotes co-ops and includes a “social wage,” housing, healthcare and employment as rights in addition to recognizing resources as commons. Their basic principle is that because everyone contributes to the economy and society they should receive the support of them in order to live with dignity. Knocking down economic self-interest and welfare programs, they present a plan founded on the values of human solidarity, mutuality and universal justice, applauding the Green New Deal as a vehicle for combatting climate change and inequality.
Dr. Pastor was a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for New Economic Thinking22 in which it was brought out that to adequately respond to the climate crisis we need a functioning government that reflects the identities and interests of the people, yet achieving such a democracy requires people’s confidence that can only be won by the government actually making people’s lives better. This is a chicken-and-egg problem that I believe Benner and Pastor resolve by offering a vision in which both objectives are fulfilled.
In my view solidarity economics is the best plan to come along, especially to guide immediate action against climate change, while long-term it should be the organizing principle for the decentralized future mode of existence advocated by Korten. In their book Benner and Pastor are silent on the matter of finance, which for Korten is the fundamental problem, as our method of creating money as debt produces a growth imperative. This can be changed with public banking in accordance with modern monetary theory, a logical complement to solidarity economics.
We should also pass over Benner and Pastor’s dismissal of degrowth, which, I believe has already begun thanks to the pandemic. Insofar as the best way to bring about human population reduction is to empower women their model assists degrowth. As the pandemic has catalyzed the trend of population degrowth it has empowered workers, portending the gains to be had by continuing it through humane policies rather than by the hand of the Grim Reaper. Extreme population density has been a factor in COVID mortality, driving many people to temporarily or permanently move out of cities. Indeed, Marcuse’s principal argument for reducing human numbers was to provide more space for each person, what we now call “social distance.” If managed equitably, degrowth amid the inevitable resource reduction coming from climate change would mean less competition between people and therefore a larger share for each person.
The Green New Deal avoids the notion of degrowth, which stands outside the Overton window for American politicians including even Sanders. Fortunately at this time Europe is doing better, with Amsterdam having officially adopted doughnut conomics and regenerative technologies rapidly advancing on that continent. Still, plenty of economists and engineers both here and abroad are presently conceiving alternative structures to address the total global crisis.
As a philosopher and organizer my focus is on changing people’s outlook on the world and behavior toward it, especially with an eye toward resolving the chicken-and-egg problem identified above. For my purpose one-dimensional thinking is a huge obstacle. For the one-dimensional world is basically a machine consisting of so many parts linked together that constitute its total operation, and as with any machine, breakdown is always considered to be a problem with a particular part or parts, never due to the whole thing being a failure or totally misconceived. But this is precisely what is the matter with the world, especially the U.S., where the system is designed to build and maintain the dominance of the rich and powerful on the backs of the rest of us and through the destruction of nature.
People see countless things that are wrong and mostly go after them one-by-one in single-issue campaigns or identity groups. They seem to believe that all these projects together move the world toward ideals of sustainability and justice, but the goals are not consistent nor is the effort continuous. What we see is much swarming of people from one highly-publicized mobilization to another, leading some leaders to link their project to the hot topic of the day as was seen with other concerns being attached to the Black Lives Matter movement. Presently there is no unifying total counter-narrative to the status quo.
Activists reading this will inevitably respond by saying that they have only so much time and energy and therefore must limit themselves to working on only one or a few projects. This attitude is perfectly valid, and I admit to concentrating my effort on particular campaigns that are the most urgent or fundamental. But I want to say here that people’s time deficit is chiefly due to the nature of the system in which work, commuting, continuing education and just recovering from the grind needlessly consume nearly all of people’s waking hours. In regard to volunteer work, there are way too few of us doing it, so with decent manpower there would be less burden on each one. Finally, organizations and campaigns need to have broader scope with work on different parts of the agenda divided among the members. Too often in organizations everybody joins in the same function or series of activities one after the other. There are countless progressive organizations doing electoral work, but why has the national campaign to pass legislation protecting and expanding voting rights, end gerrymandering and dark money in politics had such difficulty engaging folks? As a volunteer organizer in it I have found that the reasons are those I identify in this essay.
Moving on, as it is evident that the problem is total, the solution must be as well. Central to any campaign is its message, for which there is a standard formula: define the problem; identify the villain; define the solution; identify the hero, which is always the people. As for the definition of the problem, I have referenced the work of Heinberg, an energy issue expert, and Korten, an economist. They stress the severity and totality of the environmental crisis that is now inseparable from the current and widely-acknowledged crises of democracy and social justice. While the goals and strategies of the two thinkers are technically compatible, their timelines differ. Heinberg is in a rush, issuing a call for movement organizing, echoing Bill McKibben’s recent New Yorker article23 and Benner’s and Pastor’s book.
As an activist and organizer I know that along with defining the problem and the solution it is necessary to change people’s thinking. Years ago I was at a festival collecting signatures on postcards to a U.S. senator and approached people asking, “Are you for good jobs, wages and healthcare?” If they hesitated I would add, “Or are you for bad jobs, wages and healthcare?” Today my question would be, “Are you for livin’ or are you for dyin’?” In this work I have defined “livin’” in the hope that it will lead people to abandon one-dimensional thinking and behavior in favor of living consciousness and action. Everything must change, and all of our moves must be understood as parts of the total transformation, having their particular places in it and related to the rest. There can be no isolated issues, and relations must be recognized, especially order of priority.
A person is an extended presence as I have described, with their body being the center of their action which is in some degree autonomous and free. They have the ability to think differently, step outside the one-dimensional machine and engage in livin’, which is actually a natural imperative. The reality of this responsibility is captured in Leopold’s observation of the call of the grebe which, it seemed to him, sustained the courage of all the marshland creatures by reminding them “…if all are to survive, each must ceaselessly feed and fight, breed and die.”24
Despite the fractured condition of human life and the world, there is an immediately available means for people, particularly Americans, to assert their presence, and this is by fully exercising their rights as citizens. Many times I have come forward as a voice in the wilderness, attracted support and achieved some policy objective. Right now everything is at stake – not only climate and life on earth, but our very ability to act on these matters as democracy is also in grave peril. My model of life includes participatory democracy in local communities and robust citizen participation in higher levels of representative democracy which must further extend to global governance. One of the points made in the INET conference was that the Green New Deal transforms not only power for lighting and transporting things, but also human and citizen power. The chicken and egg challenge is met by redefining all the problems as one, and the solution as one as well – system change that restores we the people as the sovereign and delivers justice for all, humans and nonhumans alike. Progress toward this goal is made with the same old formula – educate, agitate, organize.
Time is of the essence, not only in regard to climate but also democracy. Dividing the single whole issue into isolated pieces is a mistake. Recently 650 abortion rights events were held across the country that were attended by tens of thousands of people, while a few weeks earlier a mere 47 Finish the Job rallies for the Freedom to Vote Act attracted far fewer. The same people who were invited to rally for voting rights turned out en masse for abortion rights. Their engagement was commendable, but it’s a fact that abortion rights depend on voting rights, and those folks weren’t making the vital connection. So much activism is one-dimensional in this way, and I fear that too many progressives are like the benevolent Eloi in The Time Machine who were preyed upon by the underground-dwelling Morlocks. The latters’ present counterparts are at this moment preparing for an historic conquest.
My emphasis on broad perspective isn’t a merely rhetorical matter, as the fate of my neighborhood paradise reveals. The developer had applied for a conditional use permit, so the city officials finally required him to slightly reduce the number of units, dealing a financial blow to the project and leaving it in limbo. As time passed my husband got a job in another state, so with much regret I sold our house and moved away. Eighteen months later an extreme rainstorm caused the creek to flood the neighborhood, killing two people, demolishing or heavily damaging several of the houses. Remarkably, the city accepted responsibility for allowing extensive development up the watershed without providing for flood control, so it bought the properties adjacent to the creek and turned the land into a park. Having withstood the flood my former house was moved to another town. When in the course of our campaign the risk of flooding was raised we were informed that the solution was to channelize the creek – another aesthetic disaster! These two threats became tied to the development but apart from it set aside as remote possibilities.
As I write there is a city near me in which the citizens are doing many good things to advance local sustainability, yet it lies between two heavily-traveled highways along which warehouse development is rapidly destroying farmland. The topography and diesel truck traffic volume has caused the region’s air quality to become some of the worst in the country. This situation is one of I’m sure very many cases that demonstrate that community-focused action, though critical, is insufficient to resolve our total problem.
I have elaborated Leopold’s and Holdrege’s notions of presence, but the former had a bigger concept in mind when he wrote “Thinking Like a Mountain.” As the mountain is the indivisible unity of all its component presences, it is this total living being that Leopold bids us to think like – multi-dimensionally from the perspective of every presence that is a part and of the whole as well. For the mountain is also a presence within its larger environment, as we see that a drought can create the condition for a wildfire that consumes every living thing on it.
Thinking multi-dimensionally like a mountain, we must also act multi-dimensionally like one. This is livin’ – at once affirming our own life and that of the world. As I have said, technologies and models currently exist and are rapidly expanding that would permit humans to establish an ecological civilization. A major part of the transformation must be people fully engaging as citizens in local participatory democracy and representative democracy at the state, national and global levels to assert their presence as their constitutional right and by this means equitably secure it. Supreme livin’ is precisely people working together privately and as citizens to reverse the ongoing global dyin’ and to advance the goal of sustainable livin’ for all. With this monumental opportunity, indeed necessity, we are truly living in the greatest moment of human history which further offers the most noble legacy.
Right now the forces of light need the kind of full-spectrum movement that is currently being carried on by the forces of darkness, the latest moves of which include propagandizing and taking over school districts. Our message must be spread at the most local level with candidates being recruited and elected there and higher up who are committed to the agenda. As we are presently seeing, like many times before, party affiliation is no predictor of an official’s actions on specific issues, especially insofar as they rely on the power elite for their campaign funding.
The life-centered, life-based system change that I am advocating offers security and fulfillment in life. While at this time people are justifiably skeptical of dependence on government bureaucrats and wild swings of the political pendulum, personal human support remains scarce. It did increase some during the pandemic lockdown, but community social bonds, which reached a nadir before then, still need vast improvement. Our current crisis is an historic occasion to restore and expand them to the environment, make real the promise of democracy and attain livin’ for all.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I will conclude it with comments on another that won an award at Cannes the same year. Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel25 opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though people have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a one-dimensional mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former they must first wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
1. La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico (1961).
2. The Twilight Zone. Season 5, Episode 22, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Directed by Robert Enrico. Aired on February 28, 1964.
As ecological consciousness grows more thinkers are putting forth holistic interpretations of the world which tackle the age-old problem of the one and the many that poses the two questions, how can a thing with many parts be one and how can there be many things of one kind? The classic formulation of it was given by Plato, to whom writers today still refer, dismissing his solution as it is commonly but incompletely understood. In this essay I present that philosopher’s brilliantly insightful approach to the riddle and use it to explain how we in fact see and know the one in the many.
The usual view of Plato’s position is taken from The Republic in which he presumes that the objects of human thinking exist in a realm of ideas separate from the material world. According to this view my thought of a triangle is not of this one drawn on the paper in front of me but of the eternal perfect triangle in that other realm. Going further, Plato ascribes the reality of all things to those ideas, reducing the familiar material plane to a shadowy reminder of it.
Delving into that intelligible world the later dialogue Parmenides particularly examines the “One,” which is both the idea and the reality of unity. The character Parmenides reasons that if unity is such a distinct entity, there must also be the indefinite “Others” which is every other kind of thing and quality in the universe massed together and combined in a manifold in which they are different but not distinct. This conception of the Others can be traced to the Greeks’ mythological notion of Chaos that existed before structure came into the world. Having introduced the One and the Others as separate the philosopher then brings them together in thought, causing all the Others to become unitary distinct things and qualities. Combining with each of the formerly indistinct other things and qualities, the One is multiplied in all these new units while itself remaining distinct as the One.
Plato is above all a logician chiefly focused on analyzing our concepts or ideas of things. Every one includes unity, for it is a unified concept or idea. Our idea of a triangle is such a one, and we think of the figure as a unitary object. Meanwhile it has parts – lines and angles which are identified in its definition. The ideas of these are also separate units, and we consider their objects to be discrete as well. So in thought and in Plato’s intelligible universe the triangle is not one but seven! For the combination of lines and angles is one; the three lines that compose it are each one as are its three angles. The marriage of the One and the Others spawns as units every different thing and quality and every combination of them in which their components, which remain manifold, are indivisibly united.
The triangle is composed of the parts I have identified, and they are related; for example one of the lines may be the hypotenuse of a right triangle. While in the world of ideas the individual lines and angles are distinct from the plain triangle, the hypotenuse intrinsically belongs to the right triangle. So unlike the simple combination of lines and angles that forms the basic figure, this specific kind has a two-dimensional component. In thought the hypotenuse is present in the foreground, so to speak, while the right triangle is in the background of a single indivisible idea. There is no separate idea of hypotenuse apart from that triangle, although one might think of it separately as a line.
One of the qualities included in the Others is existence, so from it, and contrary to the common interpretation of Plato’s work, come all distinct things in both the intelligible and material worlds. The problem that arises from this consequence is that while a combination of ideas or Forms might have material existence, the component parts in it discerned by thought remain in the intelligible world. A particular cat, which is a unitary combination of a multitude of qualities, is present before me, but its specific quality of “catness” that I behold is not in it but rather in the intelligible world.
Although Parmenides discloses this drawback in Plato’s system, it otherwise presents a superb model for understanding nature as both one and many, for our acts of perceiving and apprehending objects in thought function like the One combining with the Others. I look upon a prairie and have a single image of it in which certain defining features such as the level expanse of grass are prominent. The object of my attention is the prairie, the whole, so I see all of the particular things that compose it indistinctly. Now I focus my gaze on single bison that appeared in the previous image, this time seeing it distinctly as a single whole object while the prairie appears less distinct as its background. The image of the bison specifically is not cut out of the first image, nor is it a magnification of a part of it. Rather, it is a separate and different image that highlights certain defining features of the bison. In the first image the bison is an indivisible part of a certain whole, and in the second it forms a new whole. The first image is analogous to the bison as it might exist in an indefinite state within the Others, while the second image corresponds to what it would be distinct and unified in combination with the One.
This exercise can be repeated with the bison as a whole animal having parts. When I look at the whole certain defining features such as shape, colors and texture of fur stand out. Now I look specifically at the tail, and this image highlights its defining features – the long thin shape and tuft at the end. Like the hypotenuse of the right triangle, this image is of the tail of the bison, as the animal’s body or at least some rear portion of it appears less distinctly in the background of the single image in which the tail appears distinctly in the foreground.
In addition to the visual image of an object I also have an intuition of it. Intuition is the immediate apprehension of the function of a thing and is distinct from sense perception. It takes place concurrently with such perception, but one can focus their attention specifically on either an intuition or sense perception, shifting the other into the background of one’s awareness.
Intuition proceeds in the same way as focused sensory perception: I’m aware of the animal as a living whole with manifold functions. Those of walking, breathing, perceiving and all the rest cannot be separated, although I can focus my attention specifically on its walking, eating or other single activity in a two-dimensional intuition of that function of the animal. I can also separately intuit parts of it and different aspects such as those by which it is classified as a mammal, bison, female or mature.
Along with the kinds of wholes and parts I have named, I can see and intuit collective wholes and parts, for example a bison herd or a single member of it. Likewise I can experience an ecosystem in perception and intuition or organic parts of it separately. In this last kind of act I experience the part specifically as a part, for the other option exists of experiencing it as a distinct whole.
Seeing the one in the many is thus a two-part process: first one sees or intuits the whole, then sees or intuits different parts as parts of the whole. In these last images or intuitions the parts appear distinctly in the foreground while the whole appears less distinctly in the background of single unitary intuitions or images. As I indicated above, neither the parts nor the whole appear quite the same in the successive views of them.
We understand nature to be an indivisible whole composed of innumerable things that have multiple identities as they function as whole entities and as parts of so many other nested and intersecting whole structures. This makes each a functional manifold in a total universe in which no thing is absolutely separate or distinct but only relatively so. Our acts of seeing and intuiting carve the indivisible world into so many different objects, but this is not random because our consciousness is an indivisible functional part of the whole as well. By nature it delineates bodies and their relations, identifying natural kinds which are the essential characters shared by many things that are yet individualized in nonessential respects. Properly seeing and comprehending the world requires that we understand how our consciousness operates: it does not begin with separate building blocks then construct whole objects but rather begins with whole beings then discerns the parts that belong to them.
At this time ecological thinkers are emphasizing systems, especially as these are defined by systems theory. This interdiscipline is a life-saving departure from traditional reductionist methods in science but has yet to be made relevant to people’s individual everyday conduct. The objective of this essay is to develop the notion of systems to explain how people can act systematically now to advance the ecological civilization, indeed to avert imminent environmental and social catastrophe.
Focusing on relationships within systems, some writers give too little consideration to the nature of the things which have these relationships, that is, the components of the systems. From the concept of a system a definition of the components may be directly inferred: A component is a thing that participates in a system, functioning in a specific capacity as a part of it. Systems are therefore wholes of which things, performing specific functions, are parts.
Ecological systems theory takes particular interest in organisms which, in contrast with more diffuse and inorganic systems, are unitary lives that function in a variety of larger systems and constitute organic parts of more comprehensive unitary lives such as ecosystems and the biosphere. The unity of an organism’s life is precisely the totality of its various vital functions, what Aristotle called its essence. He identified growth, nutrition and reproduction as the essential functions of plants, these plus motion and perception as those of animals, and the latter plus reason as the essential functions of humans. In addition he declared that humans are by nature “political animals,” that is, creatures belonging to a community possessing a government.
I resurrect Aristotle’s essentialism because it ascribes to human nature the essential function of participating in a governed community. Though he admitted that democracy is the most stable form of government, his wish to provide a model for the perfect state led him to prefer rule by a philosopher-king. Of course there never has been and never will be a perfect state much less a perfect philosopher-king to rule any state. Moreover, history has irreversibly established democracy as the ideal, and today in America and many other countries the people remain the sovereign.
Grace Lee Boggs said, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”* What is missing in the response to the crises of our time is the sense among most people that they belong to, are organic, vital parts of their communities, their nation and nature and further, that the well-being of each of these requires vigorous commitment of everyone to achieve it.
The essentialist viewpoint restores people’s identity as parts of such living systems, wholes or essences. Awareness of it is presently lacking because communities, polities and nature are in states of severe degradation with individual people existing like cells in a very sick body. As such organic parts they must together undertake to recover their proper functions of sustaining themselves individually, each other and the larger bodies.
Being parts of the wholes to which each person belongs, the principal capacity in which people act in the recovery effort is as citizens. Presently polluting industries maintain a strong grip on governments at every level, as they increasingly support measures to eviscerate democracy. There is much that people can do working together privately, but the actions that are most needed at this time are public policies. For people to mobilize on the necessary scale they must develop the consciousness Boggs refers to, organize and act as citizens to defend their communities, democracy and the planet from destruction.
Functioning according to one’s primary identity is as a citizen requires attention to the full indivisible complexity of the world and individual’s lives. The reductionist method and some applications of systems theory carve the world and people’s existence into so many compartments, ultimately treating human actions and relations according to one-dimensional models. Indeed, the whole mechanistic paradigm from which we are trying to escape approaches everything in terms of instrumentality – how people and objects can be manipulated and used for specific purposes.
Mindful of this, Grace Lee Boggs also said, “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings.”† Regenerating the environment and revitalizing democracy requires restoring living social relations among people. The common instrumental nature of human relations tends to reduce behavior to so much performance and judgment of performance, leading to wholesale burning of bridges between people or at least failure to construct them. While this goes on like-minded folks circle their wagons, and the vacuum in human dialogue is filled by the media.
Government is the formal means, though not the only one, by which a community secures the well-being of all of its members and the community as a whole. Participating in their government is the way in which each citizen engages in the total effort. The community is a relational whole, of which each member is a complex indivisible human being who must be recognized as such for the civic purpose. At the same time it is understood that their well-being is linked to that of every other member and that of the whole community, with these requiring a healthy environment and robust democracy.
The logic of systems theory and imperatives for survival require that we cast off one-dimensional thinking and action, reframing everything in terms of life. That life is a total indivisible unity is now the widely accepted view, and my multi-dimensional essentialist interpretation of human life provides a guide for individual action as an organic part of it. This is precisely working as citizens with the people in our communities, nations and across the globe to restore the nested living systems in which we all exist.
A feature of systems that especially interests theorists is that of emergence – their function of spontaneously self-organizing into novel forms. Human history can be interpreted as a chain of emergence of so many cultural configurations. In our own time we witness movement after movement for this, that and the other cause, most of which soon peter out. As an organizer I have learned that such emergence does not magically sustain itself: It requires clearly defined goals, strategy, organization and people’s commitment. At this time everyone, as parts of the human systems constituted by communities, polities and humanity as a whole, must consciously, collectively and urgently strive to realize the ecological civilization.
*Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer, “Revolution as a New Beginning: An Interview with Grace Lee Boggs,” Upping the Ante, March 26, 2005.
†Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) 153.
In my last two essays I have explained that the universe is a single indivisible organism in which everything functions as parts of it both in their individual capacity and as parts of larger whole entities to serve the universal life. This interpretation raises the obvious question – how can the world be in its current state approaching total ruin? My answer is that breakdown is natural: things become damaged and diseased, then healing processes commence which either succeed or fail. Within human civilization something evidently went wrong a good while back and, rather than being rectified, the problem has spread to the point that now the whole biosphere is in jeopardy. But the victim has means of defense which it is presently directing at the rogue human species. The fossil record is clear: biological epochs come and go, and an ugly, bloody end to the Anthropocene appears to be at hand. Yet as humanity has immense capacity to do harm it also has great resources to combat and reverse damage. There is broad agreement that we should take immediate action against climate change, environmental destruction, not to mention the perennial woes of disease, war and injustice, so the key question is How?
A central concept in the expanded essentialism that I laid out in Citizenship is final causality, which is both the goal of a thing or process and the drive to achieve that goal. Tackling our existential challenges requires that we establish a goal and have the drive to attain it. This is not an academic prescription; as an organizer I have observed that for people to act they must have a definite objective, a roadmap for reaching the destination and, most importantly, the motivation to succeed. If these are lacking, people go off in different directions and even pursue counterproductive activities, as their interest progressively dissipates. Also, contrary to the common impulse, compromise is not an objective but rather compromise of the goal, which should be the ideal as it will inevitably become compromised. Creating consensus is another will-o’-the-wisp, for, as William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man said, “…if every member simply wants to do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything.”1
Understanding of nature points to a single, specific goal which is for humans to function as organic parts of natural ecosystems. There are several depictions of the ecological civilization, among which I favor that of David C. Korten, founder and editor of Yes! magazine. His Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth sets forth his plan for global sustainability. Advocating degrowth he calls for a new economic system composed of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”2 He emphasizes changing the way that money is created from the present method that brings it into existence as debt. This practice drives businesses to continually expand and borrow to raise new funds to pay off the principal and interest on previous loans – a process Korten calls the growth imperative. To replace the present extremely financialized global economy he offers an economic model of small-scale local production primarily for local consumption. In my view business and industry should also as far as possible be locally owned by individuals and workers with everyone actualizing themselves in multiple capacities by engaging in a broad range of productive and other meaningful life-affirming activities. Our vision further involves a high degree of economic equality and material security for all.
The principal advantage of Korten’s scheme over some others is that it is the ideal structure for participatory democracy and therefore maximum human freedom, a position I presented in Freedom: A 21st Century Update. My last essay Citizenship defines humans in essentialist terms as having multiple natures and being organic parts of multiple living wholes which include families, communities, polities, ecosystems and the biosphere. A person is an individual living essence whose vital functions are hierarchically ordered beginning with matter, proceeding to the vegetable functions of nutrition, growth and reproduction, then those of the animal – motion and perception. Above these are the uniquely human function of reason then finally the highest function of citizenship. Each nature in the sequence subsumes the functions of those below it, so a person acting as a citizen performs the functions of the whole hierarchy of natures.
While the vision makes the primary site for a citizen’s action the local polity, the world is in fact divided into nations which in turn are composed of subordinate political bodies. These more inclusive governments must realistically be representative democracies in which citizens should participate to the maximum extent. Clearly too there must be institutions of global governance in which people participate as global citizens.
As local governments are to be participatory democracies, the question arises, how big (or small) should the local community be? To allow everyone optimal opportunity to be engaged I would say that the population should be no more than ten thousand, preferably closer to five thousand. However I note that ancient Athens had a participatory democracy with a population of at least thirty thousand adult male citizens eligible to vote in the assembly. Moreover all municipalities in Vermont including the cities hold annual town halls in which the people vote on local priority matters. Although the ecological civilization aims for decentralization, participatory democracy can be achieved in the neighborhoods of cities designated as wards.
Supporters of climate action are divided over the matter of degrowth. In a recent interview Noam Chomsky denounced it as distracting from the urgency of retrofitting existing infrastructure to radically reduce fossil fuel consumption.3 At the same time “degrowth” is a politically perilous term in most circles since unending growth is presently a condition for most Americans’ survival. At a minimum personal savings, especially for retirement, now depends on it. The regeneration movement emphasizes growth of planet healing technologies and practices which are sorely needed but whose progress is still slow.
As I see it degrowth is no longer a choice but a reality. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed almost four million people globally, infected nearly two hundred million and still rages in some countries. Authorities don’t speak of ending the pandemic but of only managing it – a goal that has yet to be reached and may not be ever. For we have nations and the pharmaceutical industry blocking patent waivers that would raise the global production of vaccines and medicines to the needed scale. Also, especially in America, the refusal to become vaccinated by a significant number of people is undermining the effort to bring the disease under full control. With prolonged spread of the disease variants continue to emerge, some of which will inevitably be resistant to our initial vaccines.
While COVID has noticeably reduced global population growth, the conventional wisdom is that total growth in human numbers will continue, and, if history is any indication, will rebound as it did following the 1918 flu epidemic that is estimated to have killed fifty million people. What is not thoroughly correlated with the COVID impact on health and lives are underlying unwholesome public health conditions. Action is directed at the disease and not the circumstances in which it arose and which fostered its spread and virulence.
These conditions include hazardous contact with wildlife as in the Chinese wet markets and possibly by Wuhan researchers as well as human encroachments on habitats that are suspected to have caused the other recent zoonotic epidemics of AIDS, Ebola and SARS. Another critical factor in the present pandemic is the high level of global travel. Very soon after it originated in China, travelers from that country and Europe carried it to America, and variants first appearing abroad are found almost immediately in the US. Within countries spread of the disease is exacerbated by crowded living and working conditions, public transportation and events. Then there is the matter of the several pandemics ongoing before COVID arrived – asthma and COPD, hypertension, diabetes and excess weight which are known as “co-morbidities” for people who contract the disease. The first two are principally due to high levels of air pollution from fossil fuel burning, while the latter three mostly result from bad diets and sedentary lifestyles. In regard to diet the problem especially in America is that much of the food that people eat lacks essential nutrients and contains inordinate amounts of substances such as sugar, salt, artificial ingredients and toxins. American healthcare policy contributes to making the pandemic worse as affordable healthcare and paid medical leave remain unavailable to many. Although there is too little healthcare service of some kinds in some places, the overuse of antibiotics is approaching a tipping point with an alarming rise of superbugs, particularly with the pandemic in India. Overreliance on heating and cooling systems has removed fresh air and ventilation from buildings, creating COVID traps and hot spots in some of them.
A significant phenomenon illuminated by the pandemic is the frequency with which Americans dine in restaurants. This is a factor in the problem with their diets, as restaurants tend to serve over-sized portions of food heavy in salt, sugar and fat. Yet there is another aspect brought out in a recent New York Times article in which the author says, “People in almost every society I can think of have a desire to eat together in public…We want to see other people. We want to sway next to them at concerts, scream next to them in movie theaters and eat next to them in restaurants.”4 Presumably such motivation is perennial, but eating out has certainly increased in recent years and reflects, I believe, what Zygmunt Bauman calls the “liquid,” that is, extremely casual, superficial and impermanent quality of today’s social relations. Loss of human connections has been growing for some time, leading to the recognition of loneliness as a threat to health. Even before the pandemic “deaths of despair” had reached a serious level in suicides and casualties from alcohol and drugs. Obviously our high rate of murder, especially with guns, can be counted as another form of deadly sociopathology. Globally we also have growing war, domestic conflict, overall anxiety and fear as well as rising levels of toxins and carcinogens in the environment. Storms increasingly devastate some human habitations, while others become permanently submerged by rising sea level or too hot for people to live in them.
For more than fifty years humans have been over-consuming earth’s resources while generating ever more pollution and toxins, building up to our present condition in which mortality and overall instability are rapidly increasing. COVID has revealed not only how fragile human survival has become but also how numerous our problems are as they all escalate. Apart from the global financial sector degrowth is underway now, so we must choose between letting it proceed unchecked or pursuing controlled degrowth aimed at the ecological civilization.
Although our goal won’t be achieved overnight, plans and technologies currently exist in abundance, so practically all that needed is for the people to mobilize to bring them to reality. I’ll mention the principal initiatives, then turn to the outlook with which they must be implemented. On the federal level in the U.S. the Green New Deal is a good start, but it needs to go global. Moreover because everything must change, we also need to replace existing technologies with regenerative ones, following Daniel Christian Wahl’s approach. As my vision aims at a high degree of local self-sufficiency communities everywhere should embark now on efforts to develop clean renewable energy and local food production. On the internet there are countless stories of successful projects for sustainability and regeneration with many of them only requiring a group of people committed to the effort, while others such as community solar depend on legislation. It is obvious that transformation at the necessary scale requires a full-court press on their governments by the people which ultimately aims to establish local participatory democracy and true higher-level representative democracy.
To change everything not only must a multitude of things and practices be altered, but the changes must be coordinated as we advance toward the ideal. Such action requires a certain method of making judgements. In Citizenship I referred to Aristotle’s political wisdom which consisted of choosing the mean between too much and too little in making governmental decisions. For just one choice such as what the amount of a tax or fee should be political rulings are typically difficult because consequences are never simple. Making decisions to change everything will be the most challenging ever, because there are so many elements to consider. We obviously therefore need a multi-dimensional standard to apply. Our present remedies – compromise, cost-benefit analysis, trade-offs and so many forms of assistance to those who lose out – are not parts of the ideal, which is nothing less than universal justice for humans and non-humans alike.
Our vision is of a thorough-going ecological world, where life thrives and all the pieces fit together to support all the parts and the whole. This is our very conception of nature, of the universal life of which all things, organic and inorganic alike, are parts. In Ecomysticsm and Citizenship I spoke of universal love or the love of all things as the highest human love which further animates the highest human life. Having described the multiple natures of all things which account for both their perfection and corruption in the last work, it is now evident that mere love for all things is not exactly what we want. It amounts to simply extending Christian charity to the environment, loving your enemies, feeding the poor and so on. Our goal is not to tolerate and sustain degradation but to seek the perfection of all things individually and collectively.
My expanded essentialism provides a means of understanding and pursuing this. According to it each thing is an essence which strives to achieve its own perfection as a member of its species, that is, to perfectly perform the functions that belong to that essence. More specifically, as each thing is individual, if only with respect to its particular spatial and temporal locations in the world, it strives to perfectly perform its generic functions in those particular circumstances which are the functions of its individual essence. In addition to having these individual and generic identities, each thing has so many identities as parts of more comprehensive essences including families, populations of species, human communities and polities, ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere. By nature each thing therefore also strives to perfectly perform its functions as parts of these larger living wholes. The most comprehensive whole essence of which everything is a part is the universe within which each part, as a part, strives to perfectly perform its functions in the service of the whole and every other part.
As the whole universe is indivisible each part strives for unity, that is, functional harmony, with all the other parts. This is each part’s telos as a part of the whole, with the unity of all the parts constituting the essence of the whole. As parts all things have their particular desires for universal harmony while the telos or desire of the whole, which is the indivisible totality of all the parts, is simply for universal harmony.
Prior to Aristotle the Pythagorean mathematician, philosopher and statesman Archytas broadly identified harmony with justice.5 Plato picked up this idea, declaring health the justice of the body, virtue the justice of the soul and harmony of its parts the justice of the state.6 He is, however, best known for his theory of forms, asserting that the ideas of objects such as geometric figures and justice exist eternally and independently of people’s minds. Aristotle converted most of his teacher’s forms to final causes – what essences strive to achieve. In my expanded essentialism the universal harmony for which all things as parts of the universe strive is universal justice. As the whole universe is the unity of all its parts, its essence is universal justice which is an object of human intuition, the very thing Plato identified as the idea of justice (τὸ δίκαιον). According to my view universal justice is not some abstract and inert thing or even merely an idea but rather the ideal for which one continually strives. It is the supreme object of love for a person in their capacity as a part of the whole universe, a magnet that directs all their thoughts and actions, with the intuition of it ever present before their mind.
In Ecomysticism I spoke of the love of all things as the greatest love and human ideal. In that work my use of the preposition “of” was ambiguous, suggesting that the phrase meant love for all things. It is now seen that the desire of all things as parts of the universe is universal harmony, which is for them to all serve themselves, each other and the whole. As desire is love, this is the love of all things as individual parts of the universe and collectively as the whole.
Plato’s theory of forms was dismissed by Aristotle and most of his successors on the ground that disembodied ideas make no sense, but I have now re-embodied his idea of justice. This is not just a metaphysical manoeuver, for the idea of justice and intense love of it are universal features of human life. What does a victim of injustice yearn for and idealize? Justice. What is the universal principle of governance among human societies? Justice. Rather than taking the form of the philosopher’s idea it may exist as a cultural attitude, a set of customary practices or code of law. In our time justice is identified with enactment and execution of laws, which are themselves assessed as just or unjust. In Plato’s view justice was eternal and fixed, and the intuition of it does seem to convey this last quality. However the way in which I have embodied it in my expanded essentialism brings it to life, for not only is the universe a living essence, but the act of intuiting its essence is also a vital human function. In addition, a person is a living part of the whole and thus, as a part, seeks the universal harmony or justice of the whole, for this is their natural telos and supreme love as a part. Specifically, as an individual human located in a particular place and time a person by nature seeks universal justice in some human capacity and in their particular position.
A person’s identity as part of the universe is one of several that include both their hierarchy of natures and membership as parts of so many wholes such as their community and polity. They can function in different capacities in accordance with specific natures and part/whole identities, and evidently have some discretion over those in which they act in given circumstances. The history of civilization and Indigenous cultures shows different identities dominating in various times and places. Ancient Greece emphasized the human essence as defined by Aristotle; the modern West has focused on the material and animal natures of humans, while Indigenous cultures functioned in a more naturally holistic manner. Our current crises require that we change our orientation by pursuing universal justice according to our nature as citizens. With primary engagement in local participatory democracy, this is the realization of the motto “Think globally; act locally.”
The universal goal of action is the decentralized ecological civilization, and I have indicated what some of the initial steps should be. Implementing these and succeeding ones require not only engineering expertise but also vast application of political wisdom to achieve the ultimate aim of total justice for humans and nonhumans alike.
Making decisions on the way to the ideal involves several components. The first is always keeping the goal in one’s mind and judging whether any given action advances it. Presently as the dream of all-electric vehicles prevails, highway expansion increases. People imagine that an all-clean and renewable energy future is on the way which will enable them to continue to commute long distances to work and drive away from home every weekend. In my area Ecommerce warehouses are rapidly springing up, bringing a great increase in tractor-trailer traffic that adds to the already very high level of diesel emissions. Their harmful effect is compounded by rising temperatures that convert this pollution into hazardous amounts of ground-level ozone. Meanwhile my town has myopically adopted a plan to make it more of a bedroom community and to attract more tourists. Moving forward every prospective action must be assessed to determine if it is consistent with the ideal or is in contradiction to it. Instead of expanding highways we should be taking action to reduce travel by localizing production and consumption.
Spotting obvious contradictions is the easy part, for our vision is for the whole world and every aspect of it. Human transitions will be the trickiest matters to handle, as they include getting people out of dirty non-sustainable livelihoods and into ecologically sound ones plus the huge issue of urban poverty in America, not to mention the fast-growing pressure of climate refugees.
The Idea of Justice Guides and Motivates
These are daunting challenges that will increasingly need local attention, that is, yours and mine. The vision of the ecological civilization is the barest of sketches which requires specifically moral direction for not only making particular decisions but for motivating and mobilizing people to support it. This is the ideal of justice which is a beacon and a magnet for people functioning in their capacities as parts of the universe and therefore animated chiefly by their love of all things. So beyond and above the material ideal the person acting to advance it forever holds the idea of justice in their mind.
Still it is not an oracle. As I explained in Citizenship everything that happens between objects in the universe is a matter of conjunctions of essences which reflect their intentions and wills. Conflicts arise from the fact that things, especially organisms, have a hierarchy of natures. The predator, for example, in its animal nature wishes to consume the prey in its material nature, while the latter in its animal nature wishes to remain alive; meanwhile the forest fire wishes to consume the material of both as fuel for itself. Viewing these relationships in isolation, natural justice is found in each of them, for it is obviously the predator’s nature to consume prey, and the natural phenomenon of a forest fire kills some of the wildlife. Considering these interactions simply as parts of the universe, it is seen that the animals and the fire all effectively contribute to the universal harmony or justice.
Looking further, however, it may be found that the prey is an endangered species and its loss threatens not only the remaining members but also the ecosystem which depends on a healthy population of it. Similarly, the forest fire may contribute to a vicious cycle of global warming, less precipitation and more fires. So nature’s harmonization and justice may in fact be a downward spiral of degradation due to an eclipse of inorganic forces over organic ones.
Humans, as parts of nature, are the agents of this transformation with the material philosophy and technology of the modern age. So in making just decisions we must be particularly mindful of not just the fit in the relations among things but also the natures involved. As I explained in Citizenship the higher natures of things incorporate their lower ones, enhancing those lower natures. Thus for a thing to mostly function according to a lower nature is degradation, with its corruption being a diminished form of harmony and justice. A person, for example, infected with a disease is like the prey for the predator as the pathogen feeds off their body. It is, however a slower process, in the early stages of which the body exerts its human essence in a contest with the disease. If that body is weak the disease is likely to triumph and justice be done so to speak by disposing of a person unfit to survive. Yet while the person lives their human functions are impaired as they progressively sink into an inanimate material condition that is fully actualized with their death. This illustration applies to every kind of living system or essence including communities, ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere. There are forces of destruction which by nature act as agents of justice, but wholesale displacement of organic functions, especially the highest ones, by material forces and decay is an indication of grave illness which, we see, can afflict the whole biosphere. Nonhuman nature is limited in its ability to resist the growing destruction, but humans who in their Promethean pride are responsible for the accelerating trend also have the capacity to reverse it by justly respecting the functions of the highest natures of things, starting with themselves.
Acting in the interest of universal justice therefore consists of seeking the harmony of all things, giving priority to their highest natures. In simplest terms this means respecting lives – seeking the good of all living things, excluding uncontrolled populations of pathogens, emerald ash borers, spotted lantern flies and other pest species that have unduly multiplied and spread as a result of human ecosystem disturbance. Both on the pathway to our ideal and when it is realized decisions for action must therefore take into consideration the generic and individual essences of very many things. In addition to seeking the good of the highest natures of individual things and the whole of nature, justice must be provided for organic wholes or systems that are intermediate between the two extremes, for these are units within the whole as well. Given the current degraded condition of nearly everything, this action is regenerative as it elevates relations among things from a material to a more organic level.
The method of examination and evaluation is comprehensive, multi-dimensional, and deeply discerning, which is the polar opposite of the standard scientific approach. With their definitions modern sciences carve up the world into separate kinds of things and reduce their objects to the same elements in order to perform standardized mass operations on them. In doing this they draw arbitrary boundaries around their target objects, a prime example being neoliberalism’s definition of environmental and social justice matters as “externalities.” Regenerating nature requires recognizing nature’s continuity, infinite multi-dimensionality and the unique individuality of everything in it. This is a very tall order for people accustomed to promises of magic bullet solutions to vast and complex issues such as inequality and global dependence on fossil energy.
Inevitably human understanding is limited, so the exercise of practical and political wisdom must follow a few maxims including simply conserving nature and relying on the precautionary principle. People must strive to make the best judgements that they can, definitely avoiding expedience, compromise and trade-offs as far as possible. The material for decisions must consist of facts and sound science which are subjected to strict rational scrutiny and evaluation with particular attention to long term consequences. Citizens contribute their individual viewpoints, with all acting as parts of the universe expressing their interests, in contrast with our current system allegedly composed of competing interest groups but actually ruled by big campaign donors. The goal is to achieve nature’s universal justice, something that humans, as natural creatures endowed with natural intuition and reason, should be able to approach.
Ultimately the idea of justice provides the standard for decisions. Although the human and nonhuman dimensions of nature are infinitely complex, they still by nature constitute so many living essences, and our objective is for them all to be in good health, displaying justice among all their parts. So a major goal for us is to replace what are mostly heaps of organic and inorganic objects with living whole essences, generically known as “ecosystems.” Presented with so many fragments we wish thus to establish justice among them. The world is filled with objects related to one another like a bit of iron clinging to a magnet, which is an instance of minimal harmony or justice between them. Our interest however is not in such contingent relations but rather the unity or justice among the parts of higher order whole essences such as human communities, polities, ecosystems and the biosphere, the components of which must constitute living wholes and therefore be true parts of those wholes. To qualify as such a whole a collection must manifest a unitary life, with each part essentially sustaining itself, all the other parts and the whole. Insofar as all the living parts and the whole exhibit health, there is justice among the parts.
Assessing collections requires proper identification of wholes and parts. For example a human community is a whole whose parts include all the individual members as well as systems for food production and distribution. Both of these kinds of parts must perform the three essential functions named above. An ecosystem likewise contains individuals, but these all constitute larger parts within the whole which are the proper parts of the system. Since animals including humans consume plants and other animals it is thus not individuals but communities or populations of species that form parts of the system, while individuals are parts of these parts. In the whole system it is each community or population that sustains itself, all the other parts and the whole. As we advance toward the ideal we must continually ask Are we developing true living systems which support and are supported by all the parts? Similarly to the way in which the universal essence which is the striving for harmony among all the parts is known to us as the intuition of universal justice or the idea of justice, so intuition of the essences of lower level composites which consist of the striving for harmony among their parts, is intuition of justice among those parts.
Constructing Just Communities
Organisms are living wholes whose parts are harmoniously united in their indivisible essences. No organic part of an organism can naturally live separately from the whole unless it serves a reproductive function for the whole, for example, plant cuttings that will root or segments of worms that can grow whole new bodies. So the collective essences we wish to create are not unities like indivisible organisms but rather what I shall call amalgamations of parts. Individual humans can exist apart from unified communities, and plants and animals can live in the absence of ecosystems. However in these states they are like wolves, whose proper condition is to live in a pack, but are able to function in diminished capacities as lone wolves. Such alienation from natural communities is corruption or degradation of those communities and their parts, comparable to a sick or injured body in which impaired parts function in either an uncoordinated manner or in opposition to each other.
Our task of regenerating human and nonhuman communities is to follow the model of the whole universe in establishing living essences consisting of parts that, as parts of those essences, all strive for harmony or justice among themselves. The immediate object of their striving is justice of the community rather than universal justice, this particular justice being the final cause or essence of the community with a particular quality, which for a human community is its own culture.
While reconstructing nature is a daunting challenge, by far the greatest one is reorganizing humans into ecological communities, and it is here where determinations of justice must play a leading part both in regard to relations between humans and between them and nature. The goal is ecosystems that are organic wholes of which human communities are both parts and organic wholes themselves, extended in both time and space. With respect to communities the ideal is that each person serves themself, every other member, the whole community and the natural environment which in turn sustainably or regeneratively sustains the community. Such communities manifest the four commonly recognized kinds of justice – retributive, restorative, procedural and distributive – which in fact belong to all living systems. In a human body for example abuse of it is met with retribution such as a hangover; it has healing functions, exhibits consistency and finally has compensating mechanisms.
As we move toward the ideal, all these forms must be sustained, while at each moment we must further ask What’s working? What’s not working? Like with an individual body the response to debility is to heal, rehabilitate, provide needed assistance and, above all, take action to prevent future harm. All this is to be done over lifetimes in which individual aging is a natural process according to which functions develop, mature then decline. Also like in a body all the parts contribute to and support the whole, so in the community all the citizens play active roles to achieve justice between nature and themselves and between all the members. Obviously perfect justice will not be attained overnight and possibly never, however it is critical to strive for and actually achieve a good measure of justice among people and things at each stage of the process. Bringing the ideal into being should be like the growth of a person which proceeds from conception, infancy, childhood, adolescence and finally adulthood.
We are equipped with our vision of the ideal political economy and the idea of justice plus perspicacity and political wisdom, but otherwise our understanding of the world and the world itself are in flux. With natural change and regenerative human action, things organize themselves into new living wholes. Being a living human function within the living universe, new understanding also emerges which involves new organization of elements.
Dealing with change and in general it is important to properly understand the nature of organic wholes and their parts. A whole is the unity of all the parts but not the sum or collection of them. Nor it is something greater than all the parts like the compound H2O is greater than its component atoms existing separately. Rather, the essence of the whole is distinct from the particular functions of its parts. There is in the human body, for example, a single indivisible life which is the unity of all its functions, while the heart and even the circulatory system, which are essentially parts of the body, have particular functions that are very different from the essence of the whole body. I remind the reader that an organism doesn’t come into being like a chemical compound, which is assembled, but is an indivisible essence from the moment of its conception and whose parts are not constructed but rather develop and grow as external materials are incorporated into them. As organization in the world and understanding changes, it is vital that people properly identify the whole essences and parts with which they are concerned. Doing this involves a certain method of logical thinking that differs from the scientific approach and is contrary to reductionism.
The quest for universal justice is a dynamic process, and as we tackle the damage of the Anthropocene over the long term people must embrace change and moreover be actively engaged parts of it, recognizing that the alternative is global catastrophe. One of the biggest obstacles to progress is people’s, especially Americans’, addiction to convenience, a major example of which is the car whose non-necessity is demonstrated by the reliance on walking, subways and bicycles in certain U.S. cities and nations such as the Netherlands. Most Americans relate to their government as consumers of its services that include water, schools, roads and law enforcement. Taking these conveniences for granted, people not only can’t imagine things being otherwise, but positively resist change, as we see in the backlash to Defund the Police.
The universal justice that we seek prioritizes things’ highest natures including that of humans, so not only must we eliminate poverty, we must lift everyone up from their present material or animal status to which they have been reduced by education, advertising and propaganda to the practice of their highest human functions of reason and personal virtue. Such human actualization requires significant reduction in the division of labor, for as nonhuman organisms have a vast repertoire of functions, so the full human life also involves having and applying many different skills. Additionally, the multi-dimensional judgement that I have described is a necessary mode of thinking for moving toward and living according to the ideal.
I have sketched how a person should view and act upon things in the world insofar as they are an individual part of the universe seeking universal justice. While they are parts of so many other natural whole essences they also have individual identities plus individual capacities for reasoning and virtue. Still, many of their actions involve relations with other people, all of which are conjunctions of their essences that display a degree of fit or justice at some level. One person pushing another is a conjunction that occurs between them in respect to their physical natures, and their awareness of this conjunction is each one’s feeling of pressure on their body. While people can form the whole essences of families, communities and polities, just sharing a common function like working together or attending a party unites them as well with the key being the harmonization of their intentions.
Justice and Love
Previously in Ecomysticism I defined love as the immediate awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and the beloved. We are especially conscious of love because of its intensity and the extent of the conjoined functions of the lover and the beloved which can seem total as a person is consumed by a love. Other human relations – intuition and sense perception as well as simple joint functioning – also involve degrees of love. To intuit any essence is to recognize and appreciate, that is, to in some measure love it. Seeing something constitutes the fulfillment of the desire to see it, that is, to be conjoined with it as a visible object, and therefore involves awareness of unity with it. Finally, there is no question that sharing an activity with other people generates a sense of camaraderie which is a mild form of love. Obviously not all human relations are amiable. A person may be physically present to me but I resist their human aspect, mirroring the relationship between the predator and the prey, as our intentions are not complementary but opposed.
Because every kind of human association is a conjunction of essences, as we look to realize the ideal we must identify the kinds of relationships that are useful, neutral or harmful for our purpose. Unity for the sake of unity, which was an objective of Occupy Wall Street is of no value and distracts from forming productive relationships. In our present culture of radical individualism people are atomized, the condition which according to Hannah Arendt gave rise to Nazism. Lacking human bonds, they have a profound longing for love, validation and to simply belong to some group, with this last need accounting for people’s continued support of Trump according to the New York Times article “’Belonging is Stronger than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation.”7 Being alienated and marginalized engenders a great temptation for people to uncritically attach themselves to others, especially celebrities with exceptional personal magnetism. Otherwise isolated, people’s social identities are established through so many tribes, most of which are defined in opposition to other tribes. Our wish is for the deeply gratifying esprit de corps that arises among people working together to advance the ideal.
While love and a sense of unity are most commonly recognized in relations between people, they can of course involve all kinds of nonhuman objects such as animals and places. The love of nature is clearly a part of our endeavor, and it may be reciprocated, for as a person cares for and serves living things they can feel loved by them. This is obvious with pets but by no means confined to relations with animals Caring for my flower garden, especially by watering to keep it alive during a drought, I feel it loving me. Our ideal relationship with nature therefore consists in nurturing it as it nurtures us, with the highest vision being that of members of a community loving each other and their ecosystem while it returns their love. Insofar as people’s action serves the cause of universal harmony and justice, that benefit is reciprocated by the universe, and they feel its love for them in some measure.
Still, as we move forward it is important to appreciate the challenge of getting people to work together, for in our present neoliberal culture people’s impulse is to assert their individuality within groups. While together they can execute very narrowly-defined activities it is difficult for them to decide what to do, as I noted at the beginning of this essay. The problem is infinitely greater when the task is to step-by-step realize the ideal.
People’s instinct may be to compare the task to how one eats an elephant, which is one bite at a time. This comparison fails because unlike the elephant that is an enduring material thing, the ideal must be brought into material existence. The plan also is not fully formed at the beginning and requires decisions at every step regarding what to do next. There is no alternative other than to build the ship at sea, simultaneously developing the relationships and advancing the ideal.
The crisis in our relationship with nature is mirrored in our relationships with fellow humans, and it has the same remedy: a movement for universal justice. This movement is precisely nature’s way, and my contribution to the regeneration conversation is my account of the function of humans as parts of the universe and a method for making judgements. The principal capacity in which humans fulfill their highest function as such a part is their highest nature and primary identity which is as a citizen. Progressing toward the ideal and sustaining it once it is achieved requires people to deliberate together and make binding decisions – the very purpose of government. As people are extended essences as well as parts of the larger essences of their communities it is natural that the ideal restores this bond between people and their place, making the local polity the principal focus of one’s civic engagement. This is an essential part of the ideal which must be an initial high priority. Yet even before it is formally instituted, people can effectively establish local participatory democracy just by attending the meetings plus recruiting and electing candidates who will serve them to advance the ideal. Local voter mobilization is urgent, as the movement to corrupt elections must be defeated.
The glory of participatory democracy among people acting according to their nature as citizens and seeking universal justice is that they retain personal autonomy. While they function as parts of the universe, the polity, any number of other whole essences and may have a sense of unity with some or all of them, ultimately they exercise their individual rational judgment. One of people’s biggest objections in our time is to being manipulated and controlled by powerful and not-so-powerful interests. With participatory democracy the ideal and the path to it are liberating, eliminating isolation and alienation, as all the citizens seek justice for everything in the world. At the same time they function as humans in the community, practicing the “habits of the heart” extolled by de Toqueville and friendship, counted as one of the virtues by Aristotle. In addition to limiting specialization in order to actualize multiple potential functions, each person’s social life includes cultural diversity and multi- rather than one-dimensional relationships, for the goal is for everyone to function in both their highest and widest capacities.
Our current system is a machine whose sole purpose is to survive and grow, as it reduces people to highly specialized instruments of production and manipulable consumers. This artificial world is one-dimensional, defining everything in the terms of neoliberal political economy. It is an immensely complex web in which people are largely trapped, denied life and justice.
My alternative maximizes the life of all things which is precisely the justice of all things. In regard to humans it does justice to each person’s full essence with the actualization of many rather than one or a few of their potential functions. These include the functions of their material, animal and human natures which are all comprised in their nature as a citizen in participatory democracy. Actualizing these functions a person does justice to themself and moreover removes the barriers to others’ just action toward them.
As I explained in Citizenship a person’s life or essence is not bounded by the limits of their body, but is an extended essence whose functions involve the external objects with which they interact. Maximum actualization of a person’s potential therefore entails interaction with not merely very many things, but a great number of kinds of things. In our present competitive winner-take-all system people aspire to gain wealth and status which further comes with membership in elite closed societies. Saying with them “I’ve got mine,” they dwell in their realms of privilege, situations analogous to houses in Thoreau’s view which aren’t castles but prisons. The much greater human actualization provided by my ideal includes people interacting with diverse people in many capacities. Their relationships moreover are not one-dimensional and superficial, as people really get to know each other and their association enriches their lives.
Justice Is Freedom
Our task is nothing less than to bring about universal justice in the world – justice between individuals, within communities, between humans and nature and lastly, justice in our ideas and thoughts for our vision and progress toward it. The great advantage, attraction and appeal of this whole conception is that universal justice is in fact the ultimate telos of all things in the universe, the supreme object of human love. Profound motivation for realizing the vision is thus given to us by nature. We are at the threshold of the greatest time in human history in which people must unite to fulfill nature’s highest purpose.
I have presented a magnificent vision of nature in which everything strives for universal justice, functioning as individual entities, parts of so many collective essences and finally as parts of the whole universe. However on the real scene there is a blot, an exception to nature’s grandeur. This of course is the human species which appears to be unique in the ability of its members to decline to act as parts of their community, ecosystem and universe. These are free choices made either by individuals or groups of them which may establish cultural traditions ingrained in education. One of the reasons for right-wing extremism in our time is the fact that there is no more traditional society, for it has been destroyed by both libertinism and libertarianism. The proof of its demise is the fact that as the Right screams for freedom it pursues mind control with propaganda. At this time people truly enjoy unprecedented freedom to choose to act according to nature. My ideal offers further essential freedoms: first, freedom to live, next. freedom to actualize much of one’s potential functions, especially reason, then finally freedom to fully engage as a citizen in participatory democracy. These last two are absolutely vital, as technocracy, even an ecological one, is not the solution.
While greatness awaits each one of us who freely chooses to pursue the ideal people must further freely will to work together and cooperate. The vision and progress toward it offer not only meaningful work and life for people but also an ideal to uplift their spirits, sharing with others in noble camaraderie and finally sublime moral satisfaction in the attainment of justice in actions great and small.
Urgent Call to Action
In this essay I have presented an account of the world and a vision of human life that both supports nature and is supported by it. The threats of climate change and environmental degradation are immediate, and I have offered principles for responding in the manner in which nature operates. This is full-spectrum action in which everyone and everything serves the cause in all of their capacities, for by nature to live is to live fully, achieving maximum actualization of manifold potentialities. Our goal is twofold, with the first objective being to bring about the justice of all things as individuals and as organic parts of so many living wholes that include communities, polities, ecosystems and finally the biosphere. Once this Herculean labor is completed, the next one is to maintain the order that we establish. This is nature’s way, which it valiantly pursues even while severely impaired as it presently is.
Vision aside however there is one supremely urgent priority for us now which is to mobilize as citizens to preserve the vestiges of democracy that remain in order that we may restore and improve it. Failing to do this will preclude all other action aimed at establishing the ecological civilization and averting global environmental catastrophe. Nothing could be more critical at this moment than for people to rise up to protect voting rights. The fate of democracy in America and the world as well as the future of the earth will be decided in the summer of 2021. Everyone must join the fight for democracy now.
1. William H. Whyte Jr., The Organization Man, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 55
2. David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010).
3. Ezra Klein, “Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Noam Chomsky,” New York Times, April 23, 2021.
4. Max Fisher, “’Belonging Is Stronger than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation,” New York Times, May 7, 2021.
5. W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 1:The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962).
Through an examination of love I established in Ecomysticism that universal life is the substance of all that exists. While my exposition is new the conception itself is a long-held belief of environmentalists, figuring also in some traditional Eastern thought. Though it inspires a virtuous attitude this notion nevertheless fails to provide any detailed understanding of the kinds of things in the world, how they operate, how we know about them and what we should do. Presently we rely on science for most of this specific knowledge. Science does indeed furnish immense and elaborate information about nature, and much of this is invaluable. Yet it conflicts with the vitalistic viewpoint in being operational and reductionist, embodying the purpose of modern science which is human control of nature. Biology and environmental science are partial exceptions, recognizing the specifically organic character of living things and understanding that they are systematically organized internally and with their environments. But this view of living systems is still oriented toward human control and ultimately reduces them to inorganic substances and processes. Although human nature too has been translated into the terms of ecological science, in the general popular mind it remains defined by liberal and neoliberal ideologies, even Biblical Dominionism. According to these doctrines people are radically individualized subjects whose purpose is to exercise mastery over nature. A full vitalistic understanding of the world is possible, indeed necessary, to provide not only an alternative ontology, epistemology and psychology but most urgently, a total life-affirming moral and political philosophy. This essay presents such a system, focusing on the first three topics, with the full account of the second two following in my next essay Justice.
My approach is neither obscure nor new, being basically a synthesis of some ancient and more and less recent philosophy and science. Its foundation comes from Aristotle, who explained things in terms of natural functions. He called the unified inherent functions of things their essences, and these were known to humans in acts of intuition by which they were immediately apprehended. Essences are not hypothetical or things that existed in the past but no more, much less extinguished by the modern scientific paradigm. Rather, they are self-evident objects of everyday experience. Directing my attention to the things around me I don’t just see colored shapes as the strict empiricists and phenomenologists insist. I’m aware, for example, of my cat as a living thing, which is to say that I’m aware of its essence in an act of intuition.
Aristotle’s viewpoint was standard in Western civilization for two thousand years prior to the Enlightenment, while variations of it probably prevailed in every other human culture until they converted to the scientific outlook. Enlightenment philosophers and scientists dismissed and discounted essentialism as superstition. Never disproving it, they merely replaced it with their own reductionist, deterministic and empiricist views. The system they rejected portrayed a natural world that abounded with organisms living with purpose. Among these were humans whose essential purpose included the exercise of reason, virtue and governing their polity.
Enlightenment scientists demolished this vision, giving us instead a picture of a fundamentally nonliving world composed of elementary material particles all necessarily acting in accordance with Newton’s Laws. Human awareness of this world was composed solely of sense perceptions and cognitive structures. People were redefined as collections of particles that, absolutely controlled by the law of inertia, necessarily pursued their individual self-interest.
In addition to eliminating life from the universe, the reductionism and determinism of modern science has had two other disastrous consequences. The first is that it has destroyed personal human agency, as it originally asserted that the active entities in the world are the elementary particles which combine to produce certain collective effects. Over time new sciences have advanced other ultimate causes of human action: psychology has operant conditioning; economics has rational choice, and evolutionary biology has fiercely competitive DNA. According to these sciences it isn’t the individual person who makes decisions and acts, but components or forces within them. Second, although the Enlightenment exalted human freedom, the determinism of its science actually destroyed that as well. Strict mechanism has the person necessarily seeking their individual self-interest. At the same time that they considered humans to ultimately be collections of Newtonian atoms Enlightenment philosophers made a wild conceptual leap with their notion of the human state of nature. They imagined that people in this original state possessed God-given freedom to live as savages, which meant that they necessarily acted according to their savage impulses. Joining in the social contract limited some of their original freedom, but it left the rest as it was – deterministic pursuit of each one’s individual self- interest. Current neoliberal ideology similarly extols freedom as it assigns absolute control of human affairs to the God-almighty market.
The purpose of deterministic science is human control of nature and people. It may be argued that Enlightenment was the first propaganda campaign, whose goal was to overthrow the existing feudal order. In any case the upshot of the present views of natural science, psychology and political economy is that people generally believe that their proper function in life is to compete in the neoliberal economy and indulge their senses with consumer products and services. They have been manipulated into believing these things by masters of marketing and propaganda practicing their sciences of human control. Meanwhile all of life is now at dire risk from pandemic, environmental destruction and authoritarianism. Effectively responding to these threats requires concentrating our attention on life in all of its forms and putting modern scientific understanding in its place for the purpose of restoring rather than destroying life.
As a self-evident fact of experience intuition grasps or apprehends the very life of an object, for example, my cat. While the outline of the visual image of it is distinct, my intuition does not have distinct spatial boundaries because the cat’s life is not so spatially limited. Its body rises and falls with its breathing, which is an exchange of gases outside its body, and it radiates heat. I intuit the cat’s life as occupying an indefinite three-dimensional spatial zone whose center is its body. Intuition is subtle, and its strength tends to be proportional to the magnitude and vigor of its object plus proximity to the subject. Thus people may be especially aware of the lives of large animals, noting a certain mystique about whales at close range. Big old trees are other recognized objects of salient intuitions.
The very lives of organisms which we intuit were known to Aristotle as their essences.1 Things of course have properties which we call “mass,” “velocity,” and so forth, and there is certainly order in nature; “cosmos” means “order.” So things do have all the properties that they are reliably known to possess, but they are not just bundles of properties, much less of elementary particles. We can perform different operations on things, conduct experiments and put their properties and substances to technological use. All these functions reveal their use and relationship to human beings, and in this connection it must be admitted that even intuition presents things as they are for an intuiting human subject and is therefore also relative to a degree.
Intuition is not distinct, so understanding essences requires that we focus on their functions. This was Aristotle’s way: according to him the essence of a thing is its unified essential functions by which it is defined. He also called the essence the form of the thing or its formal cause, distinguishing it from the thing’s matter or material cause. A chair, for example, has as its formal cause its function as a seat for a person. Its material cause is the wood of which it is made, so the chair is not wood, but a wooden chair. When the wood is fashioned into a chair it no longer has the primary essence of wood but the essence of a chair whose material nature is that of wood. If the chair burns its function as a chair ceases, and its primary essence as wood is re-actualized. Then, as it becomes smoke and ashes its essence as wood passes away as well. The ultimate matter for all things according the philosopher is the four elements earth, fire, water and air, each of which successively passes from being potentially to actually each of the others. For him natural objects have two other causes. One is the efficient cause which in the case of the chair is the craftsman who converts the wood into the artifact or the fire that transforms the wood to smoke and ashes. His fourth cause is especially important for our purpose, as it was obliterated by the Enlightenment. This is the final cause or purpose of the thing which is literally its drive to achieve that purpose.2
The Greek term for this aspect of things is telos (τέλος), and the living drive to attain the telos is known as entelechy – “end within.” A good illustration of telos or final causality is the growth of a white pine tree. According to Aristotle it possesses the entelechy, that is, dynamic urge or desire to become and be a white pine tree, indeed a perfect one. The tree normally has a single main trunk from which the branches grow in whorls, with new growth beginning as tender upright “candles.” If the candle at the top of the tree is broken off the main trunk will no longer grow from that point, and one of the branches will grow upward to become the new main trunk. It may also happen that several branches compete to become the main trunk. Thus even if the top candle is broken and the tree’s growth is detoured, its urge is still to be perfect despite its body now being impaired.
Another term Aristotle used in discussing the functions of living things was soul (ἄνεμος),3 and he distinguished between vegetable, animal and human souls. The vegetable soul includes the functions of nutrition, growth and reproduction; the animal soul includes these plus motion and perception, and the human soul is the animal soul plus reason. These integrated functions inhere in the bodies or matter of the various organisms. So the soul of the pine tree is its vital functions which involve an active striving to become a perfect pine tree.
A seed is not a tree but a part of a tree and also potentially a new tree, so when it is “moved” by the efficient cause of moisture at the proper temperature, it sprouts, ceases to be a seed and becomes an infant tree. Now its function is to absorb nutrients, grow and ultimately reproduce as a member of its species. Its body, matter or material cause is the substances it has absorbed and metabolized, therefore a tree is not “made” of wood but rather water, nutrients and carbon dioxide. Nor is it these substances, although they form its material nature. Insofar as it continues to live, it is a tree, but if it is cut or dies, it ceases to be a tree and becomes wood.
As the material of the tree has natural properties its functions are conditioned by them. Thus the pine’s failure to restore a broken candle is not due to its failure to strive for perfection, but to the nature of its material. To the extent that the tree does not achieve perfect form, it is not one hundred per cent a pine tree, but partially matter. Branches break in storms; animals, especially insects, alter trees in countless ways, and diseases take their toll. Plants and animals usually suffer some damage in their environments, and insofar as they are impaired, their bodies are matter and not fully realized form. The partially broken branch does not fully function as a branch; the insect-damaged leaves do not fully function as leaves and the top of the white pine does not function as an intact candle, but as a broken candle. Yet despite their infirmities, organisms continue to strive to obtain nutrition, grow and reproduce. The persistent drive to achieve perfection is seen in the normal initially intact character of their offspring, for while the environment takes its toll over time, the seeds of plants and the babies of animals are clean slates for the species to begin anew. So what Aristotle called the essence, form or formal cause of a thing is its unified vital function, which is teleological.
Essences Extend beyond Individual Bodies
The philosopher concerned himself with primary essences which he identified as the species of things embodied in their individual members. His essences consists of all of the essential functions of their genus plus certain additional functions that make each species distinct As the essences of inorganic things are their essential functions those of organisms are their very lives. Both kinds of essences are contained in the objects or living bodies and limited by their material and spatial extensions. But as form is function, it is evident that lives are not limited by the boundaries of bodies because the actions of living things are processes in which organisms relate to their environments. Respiration is an obvious example: animals with lungs inhale and exhale, and these functions are vital to their lives. Carbon and nitrogen cycles reveal much: substances pass in and out of organisms. Physical conditions are also parts of the vital functioning of organisms, and these include air pressure, gravity and atmospheric temperature. Terrestrial animals stand, walk or rest on some durable surface; the habitat of aquatic animals is water, and that of birds is air. Warm-blooded animals radiate heat and cold-blooded ones absorb it. In addition, animals feed off other organisms. Aristotle acknowledged the temporal continuity of lives with reproduction but omitted the bilateral or multilateral function of sexual reproduction which, in the case of angiosperms, requires the services of members of not only a different sex but a different classificatory kingdom.
Through their functions organisms are vitally connected to other things existing outside as well as inside their bodies. A fascinating illustration of the last phenomenon is the recent discovery that only about half the cells in our bodies are human. The rest are microorganisms— bacteria, fungi, protozoans and viruses — that are on and inside it. An average human gut contains about 38 trillion microbes that serve to synthesize vitamins, aid digestion as well as influence the brain and behavior.4 Most of the more than 10,000 species of microbes that have been found in humans are either harmless or useful, so the body can be regarded as a habitat for its resident microbes. Families and households that include pets are such habitats also, as beneficial microbes are known to be transferred between mothers and babies and dogs and children.
Like organisms, inorganic things relate to organic ones and to other inorganic ones. A rock, for example, rests on the earth and falls to it if unsupported at a higher elevation. So the places of things can figure in their essences, as place is not space, but rather what is under or around the thing whose place it is. Thus, sea ice is ice that floats on the sea, especially in polar regions; petroleum is something that naturally exists far inside the earth; the atmosphere encircles the earth, and so on. All these things are what they are in virtue of what is under, above or around them.
Actuality and potentiality are key concepts for Aristotle,5 and they are especially relevant to human use of objects. The tree, for example, is a living tree and can be intuited as such, but being potentially wood, its material nature may be the object of intuition for someone who wishes to cut it for lumber or firewood. Meanwhile, dirt is a potential medium for seeds; manure is potential nutrition for plants; the latter are potential food for animals, and certain animal species are potential food for others. All these potentialities are fulfilled when they are actually utilized by other organisms. While natural things have innumerable potential uses for organisms the potential functions of artifacts are far more limited and are only actualized when they are used for their specific intended purpose. A hammer is only a hammer while someone is hitting nails with it. Otherwise, even if it is used for some other purpose such as a paperweight, it is a piece of metal attached to some wood, in other words, its material cause or matter.
Things therefore have multiple identities, that is multiple natures insofar as they are functionally related to other things. Aristotle’s term for this phenomenon was “equivocity.” Pollen is the sperm of a flowering plant, but it is also food for bees. Pollination is the means whereby bees deliver pollen from the pistils to the stamens of flowers during the process of collecting it to feed themselves. Pollen is therefore actually sperm that potentially fertilizes the egg and is also potentially food for bees. This latter function is realized when the bees actually eat it. The potential of the pollen in the plant’s reproductive function is realized when the sperm joins with an egg in the ovule.
Insofar as the lives or essences of things are their functions, it is seen that their lives or functions are literally fulfilled by means of other things. My breathing is a vital function fulfilled by the presence of oxygen; my walking is fulfilled by the presence of a hard surface under my feet. Both of these functions depend on a specific force of gravity which we attribute to the mass of the earth and its proximity to other celestial bodies.
Pollen contains the male gamete of the plant and is therefore an organic part of it in the same way that a leg is a part of an animal body. In addition to such whole essences composed of spatial parts there are also temporal wholes composed of successive parts exemplified by the metamorphoses of butterflies and amphibians. The organic parts and whole essences of individual living things are familiar to us, but there are also larger organic wholes of which individuals form parts. A clear example is the beehive, in which the animal functions of nutrition, reproduction and motion are divided among the queen, drones and workers. Populations of organisms within which breeding is mostly confined are comparable. Such organic wholes are not just spatially extended but temporally as well because reproduction continues the life of the species beyond the life spans of particular individuals. The model large-scale organic whole is the intact ecosystem, however even this has indefinite and porous boundaries as some plant and animal species inevitably disperse.
Peter Wohlleben has described how individual trees in a forest transfer nutrients between each other through a network of fungi in the soil.6 This is analogous to pollinator insects performing cross-pollination for flowers. In cases of symbiosis among individuals of the same species and different species such as these, the notions of individuality and even distinct species become relative.
Varieties of Intuition
Having defined the essences of things as their unified functions it is now evident that insofar as these functions extend beyond the boundaries of their bodies and intersect with other objects, so do their essences. This is apparent to intuition, as seen in the example of the intuition of my cat: it fades, so to speak, into the space around it. Meanwhile, I can intuit collective essences such as a beehive. Separately focusing attention on the essential individual functions of a single member of a swarm I can intuit it as an individual bee. Alternatively, focusing on its functions specifically as a member of the swarm I can form the intuition of it as a part of the whole swarm. In this intuition I apprehend the single bee more distinctly against a less distinct intuition of the rest of the swarm.
As I can intuit whole essences such as certain animals, so I can specifically intuit their parts as parts, for example, the cat’s tail. As I focus my attention on the tail the rest of the cat is less distinctly present in this intuition. The intuition of an initial or intermediate temporal part also involves some awareness of what the thing will ultimately become, that is, its final or formal cause. An attribute of an essence can also be the central object of an intuition, for example the cat’s activity of stalking a mouse, wherein I intuit the cat less distinctly as its ground. Intuitions can thus be focused on fewer or more functions including generic ones. Accordingly I can intuit an insect as a bee or more specifically as a carpenter bee. An object can also be intuited as an individual of a certain kind which focuses on the attributes that individually distinguish it from others of its kind.
The intuitions that I have described are perfectly common and especially apparent in our experience of people. Those we know are apprehended as particular individuals, while strangers are intuited generically as humans. Attending to certain functions we may intuit people as waiters, nurses and in so many other distinct capacities. We also intuit human collectivities such as sports teams, the town council and so forth. As with the beehive people in groups can be intuited in different capacities. Thus, I may look at a family eating dinner together and intuit them as a whole family. Then I turn to one of the members who is passing a dish of food or engaged in a family conversation. Focusing my attention on them performing the function I have an intuition of them as part of the family. In this intuition the person is spotlighted, so to speak, against the background of my less distinct awareness of the rest of the family. Finally, attending to either their generic or individual characteristics, I intuit the same person as a human being or individual rather than as a member of a family.
I have expanded Aristotle’s understanding of essences to incorporate things that are external to individual people and objects with which they are functionally united. Although he was undoubtedly conscious of interdependence in nature he went too far in trying to fit everything into a closed system which also included a rigid method of reasoning. My account brings his essentialism into line with environmental awareness. Doing this does blur his distinction between form and matter. For while I make his essences primary, some the relational functions I have mentioned involve potential functions and the material nature of things. However, insofar as things have multiple actual identities, there is in fact always a multitude of functions going on in a particular thing that are essential to various identities. So as I expand essences into the space beyond their immediate physical extension, I also incorporate into them all of their functions, taking care to refer each to their specific identities.
The Human Essence
Restoring life to our understanding of the world is the first benefit of my updated Aristotelian essentialism with the second being the correlated view of human life. The philosopher asserted that the fundamental nature of living essences is to live, to continue their lives into the future and to strive to perfectly fulfill their nature. Stressing final causality, Aristotelianism is at bottom a moral philosophy. Not only do materialistic sciences err in reducing life to nonlife; their supreme failure consists in being amoral, ultimately immoral. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno declared that the sole final causality in material philosophy and science is progress.7 Well, we now see how destructive this progress has become. With climate change and all the rest, no subject can be more important to us than life, specifically moral life.
According to Aristotle non-human organisms strive to achieve the perfect fulfillment of their essential functions which for plants are nutrition, growth, and reproduction with motion and perception also belonging to animals. While humans possess the unique faculty of reason their fulfillment further includes virtue which consists of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. It is human nature, he explained, to strive to achieve perfect virtue. To the extent that a person does so, they attain human form, and to the extent that they fail, their form is not human but animal as they function at that level. Throughout ancient and medieval times, philosophers and theologians distinguished between the higher and lower instincts of people, adhering to Aristotle’s basic view. The higher nature is another part of the philosopher’s system thrown out by the Enlightenment, which has now devolved into neoliberal consumer culture.
Telos, or active striving toward a certain fulfillment, is desire to attain it. The animal desires to eat, reproduce and feel comfort, for these functions represent the condition of its life. Insofar as they are animals, humans also desire these things, and consumer culture would have us confine ourselves to these wishes. Indeed, today humans are generally understood to be no more than beasts with opposing thumbs. Beyond this, for Aristotle it is human nature to want to be good, to be virtuous, despite this notion being virtually extinct in our time. Many people have particular good impulses – to serve family, the poor, the environment, peace, to be a good Christian and so forth, but we see that these separate good intentions divide them into interest, religious and political groups.
Like other species humans are organized in aggregates, indeed multiple ones in increasingly inclusive hierarchies. Aristotle denied that such collectivities had essences, although he did recognize the family as a natural group. The historical record of civilizations and Indigenous cultures is unequivocal: human beings exist in larger social bodies which range from tribes to villages, cities and nations with every such group and collection of them involving functions of governance. In his time the unit of governance was the city-state, and it was his own, Athens, that established the historical precedent for democracy.
Although he did not consider the city-state or polis (πόλις) to be an essence, he declared that man is by nature a political animal, an animal of the polis (ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον).8 I fully agree with this position and further affirm in my expanded Aristotelian essentialism that polities are distinct essences and wholes of which individual people with respect to their political nature are parts. This political nature belongs to the human essence and consists in the performance of the functions of citizenship. I use the term “polity” broadly to refer to democratic jurisdictions, deriving this position from the fact that the democratic model alone permits each person to achieve their highest fulfillment both as an individual human being and as a citizen.
The faculty of reason which for Aristotle distinguishes humans from animals includes multiple functions. One is strict reasoning according to his syllogistic logic. He further identifies practical wisdom9 which is applied to everyday decisions and involves choosing the mean between too much and too little on a continuum. Exact means exist in mathematics and figure in numerous human productions such as music, architecture and engineering. Much other human activity involves selecting the “right” amount, pressure, speed, time and so forth, with most of these determinations being inexact. A pinch of salt is not precise, but it is a standard measure in cooking, as are “barely covered” in seed planting, “room temperature” for storage and countless other practical measures.
Political wisdom is practical wisdom applied to the affairs of the polis.10 Aristotle believed that exact means exist for every choice, recognizing also the complexity and risk of error in political matters. So, having commended democracy throughout the Politics, he concludes the work by saying that the polis must have a philosopher king who alone can discern the exact mean in political decisions. I deny that anyone has the ability to make such ideal determinations and maintain that it can only be a matter of best, not perfect judgment.
For him the function of the philosopher-king was the highest fulfillment of human nature, available of course to only one person at a time in a polis. Moreover it was imperative that this person be perfect or the polis as a whole would be defective. Two millennia later the Enlightenment managed to establish that monarchy is inherently bad for governance. Like most of his heirs in the Western philosophical tradition, Aristotle tried to construct a perfectly consistent and practical system, something that we now know is impossible.
According to my expanded essentialism the highest fulfillment of every human being is active citizenship in their local polity and every higher jurisdiction of which it is a part. This means that a person’s primary identity is as a citizen. The function of citizenship like all other essential functions is teleological: it is a striving for perfection driven by desire. As parts of the polity citizens strive for their own perfection as citizens and also the perfection of the polity as a whole. Being a living essence the polity can be compared to a body whose cells correspond to the citizens. It is the function of each cell to serve itself and the whole body composed of all the cells, which ultimately means each individual cell serving every other individual cell. Never fully attained, perfection of all the parts and the whole polity is the ideal or goal toward which each citizen strives, applying their practical and political wisdom or educated best judgment at every moment along the way.
For Aristotle essences are the unified functions of things distinctive to their species that inhere in individual members and are bounded by their material limits. In fact however the actions of living things are processes in which they relate to their environments. Such relationships extend their essences beyond the boundaries of their bodies where they interact with the essences of other substances and objects. Not recognizing such vital functional connections, neither did the philosopher regard as essences organic systems of which individuals form parts, exemplified by the beehive, polity, natural communities of nonhuman organisms, ecosystems and the biosphere. Both in terms of functions and systems, the vital continuity of things with their environments is today an accepted fact. I have articulated our current view in terms of modified Aristotelian essences that align with current progressive thought, stressing the multiple identities of things as parts of multiple whole living systems.
The essential functions of things that I have discussed so far are what are commonly regarded as the physical functions of inanimate objects and the physiological ones of organisms. Aristotle’s animal essences also include the function of perception, while the human essence manifests reason as well. Throughout the history of Western civilization the subject of consciousness has bedeviled thinkers, and no satisfactory explanation of it exists to this day. Three basic reasons account for the failure. First is the reductionist method of science that began with the Enlightenment’s attempt to explain everything in terms of material particles and their motions. This has evolved into today’s model that attempts to define consciousness as some form of physical energy. The second reason is that for materialists and essentialists conscious functions are located strictly inside the material body. Thirdly, for essentialists, dualists and idealists the rational mind is immaterial.
All these positions are refuted by self-evident facts of experience. The first of these is the experience of love which, as I explained in Ecomysticism, is a spatially extended awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and the beloved. A less salient form of this is a person sensing their unity with a place and the things in it, usually in some remarkable natural setting. In the previous section I listed several functions of essences which extend beyond the commonly recognized boundaries of objects and organisms and further included them as functional and systematic parts of more spatially extended whole units. As the universe consists of an infinite multitude of graduated and intersecting functional systems of which individual things constitute a variety of parts, we should expect that the character of the essential functions of consciousness be consistent with the rest. That they do accord is a self-evident fact of experience for, as I shall presently explain, things are intuited and seen out there, where they apparently are physically located in the three-dimensional space of my experience. This space includes my body, as my intuitions and sense perceptions aren’t in my body, but rather, my body is in my experience.
Synthesizing ancient understanding with more and less recent science I now add conscious functions to my expanded essentialist interpretation of the world. I have already used the phrase “space of experience” and want to make clear at the start that this space is not what we commonly understand as the physical space in which objects have definite locations and volumes, for example the physical extension of my cat or the mass of a mountain. Rather, the space of experience is primarily the felt extension of my body plus the field of my visual and auditory perceptions which is populated with intuitions, visual images and sounds. Without question the space of experience is not the space of physical objects, as the former is perspectival and private to the subject, which the latter is not.
The previous section focused on essences and intuitions of them, omitting sense perception, which was extensively explored in The Ecological Inclination. In that essay I followed the standard empiricist and phenomenological method of regarding sensory images as images. If I look at something specifically as a visual image, what I see is two-dimensional. Admitting intuition of essences into experience restores its normal depth. Looking at my cat I see its colors and three-dimensional shape and am immediately aware of its life as having some volume. Both the visual image and my intuition are over there, across the room, where I see the cat and apparently where it is.
The usual explanation of depth perception is that it comes about from light entering two eyes, each of which receives two-dimensional images but which in combination produce the experience of a three-dimensional image located inside the head. It is also noted that rapid movement of the gaze and variable focusing indicate the physical distance between perceived objects. Though scientifically recognized these explanations leave the basic point untouched, which is that immediate experience reveals that the body is in experience, not that experience is in the body. No amount of neurophysiological research or theorizing alters this fundamental self-evident fact. Ultimately, which is more plausible – that the panorama that I see is inside my head, which is a small, dark place, or that it is outside my head, in the big, luminous world?
Of course science also denies the intuition of objects, which is another immediate fact of experience. It would have us believe that experience is strictly empirical, consisting of sensory perceptions and feelings. First insisting that our experience is limited to sense perception, science then proceeds to speak about material things that exist independently of our images that represent them. However Kant was right: if one insists that the sole access to a material world is sensory images, then all one knows is those images and not what material things are apart from them or if material things even exist. Science compounds its contradiction by claiming that sense perception is a material process: light stimulates the optic nerves which causes sight to magically happen in the brain. Nobody has ever looked at brain tissue and seen the image there that the person whose brain it is sees.
Ultimately science admits that it is a model which has a measure of empirical confirmation. So it doesn’t claim that it is unconditionally true and alternative models are false. Science deals with the phenomena of the senses and is also directed at controlling its objects. Yet it is not exhaustive, nor is it moral. Its purpose is the control of nature, and this power to control is used with both good and evil intentions, all claiming to represent “progress.”
Empirical science is in fact operational, defining things’ spatial extension as their extension for my sight, with a ruler laid beside them, or for my touch, as I run my fingers over and around them. Their mass is the figure shown on a scale as objects are placed on it and so on. Things obviously have the natures which science attributes to them. Engineering proceeds chiefly according to Newtonian mechanics, and objects remain as they are built and don’t break apart. Science is not false, it just represents a certain order in nature specific to human manipulation and control of it.
I have expanded Aristotle’s notion of essences to bring it into line with environmental awareness. While he erred in trying to fit everything into a perfectly consistent total system our age has in fact gone to the opposite extreme, honoring not only all the cultures and beliefs of the present, but also virtually all of those of the past. Postmodern relativism does have the virtue of contending that none of them can claim to be uniquely true. However, it doesn’t do to throw the baby out with the bath and reduce everything to the Big Lebowski’s “That’s just your opinion, man.”11
Early in the twentieth century one philosopher had the courage to say not that no contrary beliefs were true, but that diverse systems of thought were equally true because we exist in a pluralistic universe. William James asserted that multiple orders coexist and are irreducible to each other.12 Although people usually hold only one and not multiple faiths, those who do accept and are perfectly comfortable with recognizing separate material and spiritual dimensions in the world. The pluralistic universe is in fact a matter of common belief.
What we normally take to be individual things are objects whose essences are their unified functions. Being radiant centers and sources of action they function as whole objects and parts of other wholes. Their action intersects with that of other objects around them and is therefore spatially and temporally continuous. Both in terms of a kind of reverberation throughout the world and being a nondiscrete functional part of the whole world, each thing is indivisible with it.
I am therefore not just my body with my experiences locked inside it, particularly in my brain. My physiological functions are relationships between my body and things outside and inside it, thus my skin is not the absolute but merely relative boundary of my self and its functions. This fact is obvious in experience, as the intuition and visual image I have of some object is over there, where they are in the space of my experience and outside my body. Seeing an object consists of a relationship between my body (my eyes are open and properly functioning), intervening light and the object insofar as it is visible. This active relationship occurs in a continuous natural universe, so there is no reason to locate it inside my head instead of out there where the intuition and image are actually experienced.
Experience Is Extended Function
The view that visual images are located where they appear to be, that is, outside the body, was cogently set forth by Henri Bergson in his 1896 Matter and Memory.13For him, the universe is composed of energy in continual flux. Unlike high-intensity forms such as light, material things are low-intensity forms of energy with particularly repetitive patterns or rhythms. A rock, for example, does not move and persists in being a rock, while in organisms, notably animals, this rhythm constitutes habitual activity. As configurations of energy living bodies are radiant centers of action that are ultimately continuous with the rest of the world.
Senses project into the space around the body energy which is nascent habitual bodily motion, that is, bodily memory, which scopes out, so to speak, the environment for such action. Where contact occurs between a subject’s projected energy and objects images are formed which are connected with the body by way of the projections. Conditioned by the properties of the objects, images are reflections of the subject’s potential action on them. Insofar as that potential action is bodily memory, images consist of visual memory, and objects are recognized as kinds of things or particular ones. Sense perception projects bodily action in a potential state in order to survey choices for action. Making the choice consists in one of the projected potential actions passing into actual bodily motion.
There is always novelty in the world, and this arouses focused perception. As I walk through the woods my attention is on the trail, for I wish to walk on its even surface while avoiding such objects as big rocks, logs and puddles. My perception involves projecting the energy of relevant generic bodily memories onto the trail and having them reflected as images of the kinds of things I am looking for, noticing their particular features only so far as they relate to my movement. A rather different case is when I want to fetch a certain book from my shelf. Scanning the shelf, my particular bodily memory projection passes over other books, eventually “finding” its match, at which point I reach out and grasp that book.
Although it is primarily repetitive motions, at every moment the body undergoes changes, especially with respect to its sensory functions, and these are preserved in its ongoing action. Such preserved motions are reactivated as bodily memories projected onto present objects. Sense perception is a matter of exploring options for bodily action with a more or less specific intention, only forming images of objects that hold some interest. I can sit in my chair and passively see the image of the room around me that presents a multitude of possible actions for my body. Or I may be engaged in some more active exploration as I hike through strange wild terrain. I carefully focus my attention on certain objects, drawing on the depths of my past experience to enable me to distinguish such things as rabbit holes, snakes, poison ivy, camouflaged frogs and turtles. This inspection consists of summoning and projecting so many progressively specific bodily memories onto their objects which in turn disclose further features of themselves in my images of them. Thus, as I examine a mass of dead leaves with increasing attention to detail, the image of a frog appears among them, signaling that I must not place my foot upon it.
Science and the Extended Mind
Scientists have long located external sense perception inside the head for two principal reasons. One is that such perception depends on the proper functioning of the senses, the brain and the nerves connecting the two. Being a relationship between the perceived object and the perceiver’s sensory apparatus, it is obvious that all must properly function, for eyes must actually see, while optic nerves and the appropriate parts of the brain must be intact. At the same time there must be light, and the object must be present and visible. So both inside and outside conditions are essential to the production of vision.
The second reason that actual sense perception has been situated inside the head is the existence of images associated with dreams, imagination and memory. However when we have these images, we don’t specifically locate them inside our heads. That is, we don’t see them inside our heads as in the way we see objects inside a room. With regard to memory, it makes no sense to say that memory images are “stored” in our brains or inside our heads because if this were so we would always be conscious of them.
Aristotle explained sense perception as physiological functions that take place inside the body. In the case of vision color “moves” the air which, forming a continuous medium, in turn moves the eyes to actualize perception of the color.14 Otherwise the human function of rationality or mind was to him immaterial. He declared that the forms or essences of things exist potentially in the individual’s mind, and when their body encounters a physically embodied essence, the form becomes actualized there.15 Because the mind is unextended, the actualized forms in the mind are also unextended.
The notion of the unextended mind persisted into the seventeenth century with Descartes and Spinoza maintaining dualistic views while Leibniz and Berkeley were idealists. Kant was a critical idealist and Hegel a full-blown one. Only the British empiricists considered mind to be something material inside the body functioning according to the laws of nature governing all material objects. Their theory was and remains of course only a model which is contrary to the immediate evidence of experience.
Quantum biology is now providing better insight. It has determined that the migration of the European robin is directed by an interaction between the earth’s magnetic field and certain quantum particles in the bird’s eyes. Quantum phenomena also account for the particular qualities distinguished by some animal’s sense of smell, even at incredible distances. Exhibiting “spooky action at a distance,” quanta occur in “entangled pairs,” which are spatially separate yet linked and in which change to one correlates with instantaneous change in the other, however great the distance between them. Quanta are both particles and waves, which makes them point sources of energy whose fields are indefinitely extended and form indivisible parts of the whole universe.
In their 2014 book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology,16 Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden explain that quantum processes figure in the functions of enzymes, respiration, photosynthesis and specifically adaptive rather than random mutations of DNA. These processes occur at the ultra-micro level of individual molecules where key actions are performed by particles that briefly assume wave form. Under common thermodynamic conditions quanta exist in particle form. For their wave manifestation requires an extreme degree of coherence or order within the surrounding matter. As living cells consist mostly of liquid and therefore molecules in fairly random motion, the secret of quantum biology is the orderly vibration of those molecules.
The authors explore the possibility that consciousness is a quantum phenomenon. They note that the brain, indeed the whole body, is surrounded by an electromagnetic field which physically affects the body’s immediate environment, producing a measure of coherence with the body. The brain’s external electromagnetic field evidently coordinates nerve firing within it. In experiments the firing of brain neurons registers as disorderly or asynchronous when one is searching for an object “in plain sight” but then becomes synchronized when that object is visually distinguished from its surroundings.
Quantum biology represents life as a physical process that not only organizes inanimate matter, but also creates and sustains harmony and balance among its manifold parts which, insofar as they are quantum entities, are not totally distinct. Life also reproduces itself, displaying intentionally adaptive continuity in time. Al-Khalili and McFadden speculate that death occurs when the mechanism for preserving vital balance and harmony fail.
Bergson’s explanation presents a picture of physical processes that produce conscious images in the space around our bodies, connected with them by streams of energy. He devotes considerable attention to the apparatus for these processes constituted by the human nervous system. Undoubtedly this complex structure has a purpose, and it gives him a means of explaining sense perception and bodily motion entirely in terms of local causality. We do understand that electromagnetic energy travels in paths through space and also that signals are transmitted about the pathways of the nervous system. In Bergson’s time the non-local causality of entangled pairs of quantum entities was not yet on scientists’ radar, and eventually even Einstein denied such spooky action at a distance. Today quantum biology reinforces the role in external perception of the electromagnetic field surrounding the body. Still there is no need to reduce conscious phenomena to such things and processes that we do not directly perceive. It is enough for philosophical purposes to simply understand experience in terms of vital functions, especially for the reasons I have given for opposing reductionism.
In his later work Creative Evolution17 Bergson asserted that the fundamental substance of the world is the élan vital or creative universal life force. According to this view each individual organism is the continuation of its evolutionary history and its spatial context. An especially striking illustration is the insect that first paralyzes its host and then lays eggs in the live body, providing fresh nourishment for the young when the eggs hatch. Bergson argues that this symbiosis could never have come about through Darwinian natural selection. Instead, he describes evolution as the progress of a single universal life force that “condenses” into actual and intimately linked members of species. In some places life lapses into habit and remains unchanged for very many generations or even eons. In others the absolutely creative élan vital surges forth, producing new forms of life integrated with already existing ones. After the initial creative burst, entropy sets in and preserves the new forms.
According to my expanded essentialism objects are radiant centers and sources of action indivisible with the universe. Certain of their functions such as an animal’s sensory activities extend beyond its material body into a zone around it. The intersection of that zone with those of the sensible functions of external objects produces sensory images that reflect the natures and present intentions of both.
Bergson describes the process of sense perception as involving an active subject and a passive object, but in my expanded essentialism the object’s essence is extended like that of the subject. We commonly understand that the visibility of an object consists in its reflection of light which is then sensed by a subject. Insofar as this is true, it is evident that reflecting is a function of the object, and the reflection belongs to its extended essence. Moreover the subject does not just see an image, they see an image of the object; in fact the purpose of the object’s function of visibility is to be seen. Therefore this function is fulfilled not only by the reflection of the light from it, but the actual reception of that light by the sensing subject which constitutes the image. So the reflected light and the image are parts of the object’s extended essence, mirroring the structure of the subject’s extended essence with which it is conjoined in the image. As the image is specific and private to the subject, so the object’s end of the process is also particular, embodying a particular intention with respect to the subject.
Obviously the object’s function of visibility is not directed exclusively at me, for as the thing continually reflects light it is potentially visible to whatever animal comes into its range. Yet like my seeing it, the actualization of its visibility is particular to each of them. Further, I don’t just see one object but rather an immense multitude of them, with each one performing a particular act of visibility directed at me. Visual perception displays a Gestalt character, so while the subject’s action organizes the components of images, the objects organize their visible attributes among themselves. As I examine an object it reveals more of itself to me, thus the alteration observed in the images involved reflects the action of both the subject and the objects as they continually condition each other through their conjunction in those images. This process obviously isn’t always initiated and directed by the subject, for objects impose themselves on my consciousness all the time, with me being mostly prepared in at least a minimally alert state.
Human experience is not merely sensory, for we also intuit essences and know love. These are clearly functions that mostly occur beyond the boundaries of the body, also in the private three-dimensional realm of one’s experience. Sense perception reveals the physical and superficial qualities of objects, especially their spatial characters. Differently colored surfaces indicate separate visual objects and their extensions, while their perspectival features indicate their locations relative to the body. As intuition is qualitatively indistinct things are usually specifically identified by their sensible qualities, especially color and shape. For its part intuition reveals the intrinsic natures or essences of objects which are not perceptible to the senses. It too has a perspectival character, as its strength lessens with increasing distance between the subject and the object while the latter’s three-dimensional size also shrinks. Normal experience is a combination of intuition and sense perception. Thus, planting flowers I am aware of their lives as I dig a certain number of holes of a certain depth and, feeling them with my hands, place them a certain visual distance from each other. Doing this I am also in a state of love for my garden, being aware of the unity of my life with it.
Like sense perception, intuition represents the intersection of my life with that of the object. So as with the sensory image, what is presented in the intuition is the essence of the object as it is for me, the subject. Still, insofar as being intuited by me is a function of the object it conditions that intuition with its intention. For example, I intuit a bear in a pen at a zoo as a magnificent animal, while one that is charging at me in the woods is experienced as a fierce predator that threatens my life.
This fact reflects the equivocity of essences and the reality that all activity in the universe is willful. Each thing has innumerable relationships with other things which manifest their multiple teleological natures. A bird, for example, perching on a twig of a tree constitutes a conjunction of the essences of it and the tree. In this the bird willfully employs the twig as a perch, while the twig in its capacity as a rigid horizontal part of the tree’s matter willfully provides the perch to the bird. All relationships in the universe involve such conjunction of wills. A less sympathetic example is that of a predator and its prey. While both have individual natures and will to live their lives this relationship involves the prey’s secondary nature as potential food for the predator. So the predator in its primary nature sees the prey. The latter in its primary nature sees the predator and tries to escape it, yet in its secondary nature it reveals itself as prey for the predator.
Human intuition of essences relates to functions which are commonly the use of objects. Thus I intuit a chair as a potential seat for a person, experiencing a subtle desire to go and sit in it. All my experience involves desire, and I move about with specific intentions directed at the relevant aspects of things that I intuit. While the primary essences of objects can be intuited, for example a tree, its material nature can also be intuited as timber for lumber or firewood. My intuitions reflect objects’ specific responses to the intentions with which I approach them. So, when I wish to intuit the tree as a tree, it willfully presents its full living essence to my consciousness. To a logger with a different intention its material nature willfully presents itself as timber.
The interchange found in intuition is also manifested in sense perception: I reach out to objects as a seeing subject, and they present themselves as visible things. That is, at my bidding they reveal themselves to me. This is especially evident in the process of examining objects: as I seek to discover details of their appearance, applying effort and concentration, they willfully oblige me.
Broader mutuality of intention is exceptionally illustrated in Aldo Leopold’s “The Alder Fork”18 which I discussed in Ecomysticism. In that event the fish in their secondary nature as food for him willed to be caught. Of course they didn’t just jump into his creel; it took a great deal of effort, concentration and skill to catch them, and this reflected the multiplicity of the fishes’ nature, the man’s and that of each of the objects involved in all of their manifold relationships. For each thing is always desiring to fulfill multiple natures which intersect with the natures of other things. “The Alder Fork” represents the exquisite conjunction, indeed harmonization, of intentional acts by multiple lives for the benefit of one of them, Leopold.
Being members of species and kinds of things essences have generic features, yet each one is particular chiefly with respect to its place in the world and history. They all intersect with the things around them, and they condition each other, so what they do and how they are conditioned by other things alters them, continually adding to their history. With their full lives included in them essences are individual variations of their species. A person is a human being in a particular place and with a particular history which has accumulated in their body and experience.
My history is preserved in my total life. As my bodily activity involves intersection with other things which generates intuitions and sensory images, so, as occasions call, I can recreate images perceived in the past from its accumulation which constitutes my present essence. These are memory images which are evidently not present images in virtue of their dim and fleeting character. They are taken to be records of the past because they “fit” with my experience overall. As life is purposeful and creative, bits from the past can be recreated and recombined, producing images of imagination. Such activity can occur involuntarily, producing the experience of dreams. Where the images of memory, imagination and dreams are located is a moot question, for they are in the space of my experience.
Still, my expanded essentialism provides an explanation of these experiences in terms of functions. A visual image represents the intersection of my essence and that of the object and is therefore a joint function of these two. My essence includes innumerable particular potential functions, and every function I perform is the actualization of one of them. Potential functions may be actualized for the first time or be repeated as, for example, I learn the moves in a sport and then practice them. Being a function of my essence each particular act of seeing which produces its image also initially exists in a potential state. It differs from a mere bodily function such as waving my arm in that it is completed by the object. As my essence performs part of the function of producing the image, so it can reenact that part when the object is not there to do its share. Further, since every action and interaction of my essence modifies it somewhat, the reenaction is the original action as it was modified by the object. Thus it partially reproduces the original image in the form of a memory image. This may be vivid and detailed but still insubstantial on account of the absence of the object. Memory of intuitions works the same way.
Furthermore, remembering involves a purpose, for example, recalling someone’s name. When I see their face the name doesn’t automatically come to me like an habitual action. Instead, a succession of memories which are mostly nascent speech come into consciousness until one of them gives me a sense of fit between it and the face. At that point my desire to remember the name is fulfilled, and I say the name silently or out loud, recreating the association of the name and face from my history.
A more creative pattern is found in thinking, which consists in finding the answer to a question or the solution to a problem. As with the simple act of remembering a name, the point of reference need not be the image of the person present but can be a memory image of them. So for thought the question or problem can take the form of nascent speech, an image of memory or imagination as well as something like an arithmetic problem on a piece of paper. Thinking does in fact tend to consist largely of nascent speech, which is normally taken to be talking to oneself in one’s head but is actually subtle movements in the mouth – literally tentative actual speech. In the thinking process so much nascent speech comes forth, along with images of memory and imagination as well as intuitions in an apparent association of ideas. Lines of reasoning are followed, and the matter is more deeply delved as in focused perception. Unlike with this last function there is no external object revealing itself to one’s consciousness. Rather, the subject is creating the answer or solution with material drawn from memory or beyond. At length some of the conscious objects come together and join with the representation of the question or the problem to form a unity which constitutes the answer to the question or the solution to the problem. Fulfilling the desire that drove the thinking process, it may then pass into some bodily motion such as speaking, writing, drawing or building.
As the solution coheres with the problem, so its parts cohere among themselves. Moreover, while the solution to the problem is a newly-created object in the universe, it fits into the rest of it. Much of a thinking process can consist in bringing a potential solution into relation with established facts and logic to determine if it will fit into the whole, selecting and adjusting contents to ensure that it will.
As with the production of sensory images, the object of thought that is formed may have a stock character if it is constructed mostly of memory images reflecting bodily habits. Professionals do this every day – create slight variations of previously created objects and solutions to problems. Although for Bergson the source of one’s memories and hence material for thought is their entire past, one’s resources in fact are not so limited. Thought constitutes an active relationship with the universe, which in processes of problem solving, reveals itself to the subject, creating new thought objects consisting chiefly of novel nascent speech and imaginary images. These are new arrangements of language and memory images which become material for the creation of yet more thoughts, objects and actions with the process mirroring that of Bergson’s creative evolution of life forms.
Not all is ideal, for an object of thought initially accepted as a solution may in time be discovered to be defective: one senses that something isn’t right or some application of it fails. In these cases, the process starts again, and this is precisely dialectical thinking. In this connection I note that fantasy is strictly an act of imagination, not thinking, and is therefore not subject to reality checking.
Meanwhile, as the postmodernists have insisted, thinking always involves some “frame,” if only the basic form of language. The potential for developing thoughts following a certain formula is unlimited – science, ideology and propaganda being prime examples of this. Thought is creative, and people can obviously make all kinds of claims and elaborate them indefinitely, even venturing into the realm of fantasy. At this point I shall state that although this essay is such an elaborate creative account of the world the framing elements in it are minimal. For it consists of experience examining itself, starting with self-evident facts of experience. As the examination has proceeded the universe has revealed content about itself which adds up to a fully coherent systematic explanation of the world that is consistent with logic and reality.
The universe is ultimately a single temporally and spatially continuous life which is animated by a universal life force, the telos of which is precisely to live. Propelling, perpetuating itself into the future, it continuously creates itself, changing in a kaleidoscopic manner. Thus change in any part involves change throughout, something we immediately observe as every motion of our bodies is accompanied by total change in our field of vision, if only in regard to the perspectival aspect of images. Contained within the universal life are infinitely numerous nondiscrete parts which are each creative centers and sources of action organized as countless graduated and intersecting parts and wholes. By nature all of these parts purposefully act to serve the harmonious functioning of the whole, and they do this in all of their manifold characters as wholes and as parts of all the wholes in which they are included.
This conception of the universe can be grasped by considering how an organism works. The coordination of its functions is not ultimately the effect of local mechanical causality like the heart moving the blood through the circulatory system. Rather, the right hand is coordinated with the left hand, and the eyes are coordinated with the hands because, as parts of a whole indivisible system, it is their nature to function in unison. Transmission of signals quite evidently plays a role, but it must be noted that in some matter such as eye-hand coordination the signal transmitted through the eyes and the nerves has its particular effect on the hand because it is the systematic function of the hand to receive that signal and move accordingly. In fact at every point in such transmission bodily parts perform their specific functions because they are parts of the whole functional system, as is too the signal.
Experience displays the same character. For everything is particular, if only in virtue of its unique place and history. My seeing is directed at particular objects; for example I aim my gaze at the trail to see the objects on it. At the same time the trail’s function of visibility is directed particularly at me. The intersection of my nature as a seeing subject with a particular intention with respect to the trail and its nature as a visible object with a particular intention with respect to me is the image. This particular bilateral relationship accounts for why the image is private to me, that is, my visual perception and no one else’s. The subject and the object form an organic functional unit and are parts of an indivisible whole in the same way that organs are parts of indivisible whole bodies. What I have just said about sense perception also applies to intuition which, like the former, is a function of my essence: when the functional field of my essence intersects with the functional fields of other objects intuitions arise, accompanied by sense perceptions. Sensory examination of objects that reveals new images has an intuitive component as seen in the example above of the frog among the leaves: when discovered it is not merely seen but also intuited.
Still, I see and intuit some things without specifically looking for them. For example, I am not interested in the wall over there, but I see it because my body has a material nature which is subordinate to its human nature. In its material or physical capacity it can’t move through the wall. Motion is relative, so as my body would fail to move the wall, the wall would fail to move me. It is therefore an obstruction to my motion and presents itself as such to my vision and touch. At the same time I intuit the wall as a human artifact whose function is to enclose a room. I use it accordingly by moving about within the confines of the room, entering and exiting through the door rather than walking into the walls or trying to break through them. There are also objects in my experience that have no apparent bearing on my activity. Thus, while I see and intuit the blue-colored distant mountains I have no intention of ever having any bodily interaction with them. Still, my seeing and intuiting them indicate that I have at least a minimal interest in being aware of such things around me. At the same time their presence in my consciousness indicates that they have an interest in me being aware of them.
Every object embodies a multitude of particular intentions of that object in the different capacities of its multiple natures all directed at particular other objects in the different capacities of their multiple natures. This is akin to how the universe is represented by field theory, most simply in terms of the particular gravitational forces that exist between all particular things. It is also why life, as it is intuited in love, presents itself as an infinitely vibrant manifold.
Experience presents options for action, and casual sense perception guides habitual action. Both intuition and perception precede bodily actions, serving to scout out the territory. Intuitions and images represent the intersection of the subject’s conscious nature and the object’s nature as perceptible or intuitable, that is, exploratory conjunctions of their essences. The exploration culminates in bodily motion exemplified by a handshake – a bilateral action in which two persons form parts of a functional whole.
Suspending the progress of actions to study objects brings memory into play in the process of choosing how to act. Human deliberation is a luxury in which people can take their time and delve the depths of their experience to illuminate some matter of choice which is the immediate continuation of their life. The extent of the experience that is drawn upon provides the degree of freedom of the choice. For Bergson supreme freedom consists of action that proceeds by the direction of one’s total life. He considered action unfree, in fact, mechanical, insofar as it consists of the minimally conscious repetition of habitual behavior.19
One’s options are not in fact limited to their own past experience, as consciousness can plumb the resources of universal life in thought. More directly, one has access to certain whole objects of which their essence forms parts as they act, for example as a member of their family or as a citizen of their polity. All things have multiple natures and constitute parts of multiple intersecting and graduated whole essences, therefore insofar as one’s action takes so many things into account it is one’s own action as parts of the functional wholes that include them all.
The Extended Self
My expanded essentialism has established that a person is ultimately a unitary and individual human life or essence which extends into the physical space around their body and includes a private three-dimensional space of experience. The sensory images in this latter space belong to them, are parts of them. People in fact normally believe this, except they imagine that their images are inside their bodies, with contact between external objects and themselves mediated by light. In my view images and intuitions belong to them and are their possessions rather in the way that parts and functions of their bodies are. Of course people regret losing such things as their teeth, organs, appendages and faculties of sight, hearing and motion. But less dramatically they can and do feel personally violated by the destruction of sensory images that they enjoy such as those of landscapes and the songs of birds as well as the introduction of unpleasant sights and sounds into their environments.
As one’s images exist at the intersection of their essence and those of objects they functionally conjoin them, for the production of the image is a shared function in which the subject and the object both participate. Though the image is private to the person and is a part of them, they are essentially in contact and connected with the object through it, making them aware of the continuity of their essences or lives.
Conscious experience is but one function of the physically and spatially extended essence or self, the rest of whose relations with other essences mirror those of experience. Substances and objects involved in one’s vital functions are both theirs and shared with other essences. Thus, the air that they breathe belongs to them, is theirs, a personal possession, while it is also shared with other essences.
I intentionally use the term “possess,” which is generally associated with the concepts of private property and rights. After all, the Green Amendment to Pennsylvania’s state constitution establishes rights to clean air and pure water. My notion of the expanded essence or life puts such rights on a level with the individual’s fundamental right to life. To take the case of water: drinking it is an essential human function, yet to drink it requires that one must obtain it, and this in turn requires a supply. So a human’s extended essence includes the function of obtaining water from a supply with which their essence is continuous in the performance of that act. As the function belongs to a way of life, people and water supplies form parts of larger functional wholes or essences.
In claiming ownership, so to speak, of substances and objects essential to their life, a person also assumes responsibility for them. So we arrive at the matter of the action of bodies, through which people are continuously connected with other objects in the world including other human beings. One’s self is not separate from other things and people in the world as Enlightenment thought would have it. Nor is it alienated from them, as liberal and neoliberal ideologies maintain. While the essences around a person are targets of actions which embody their intentions toward such things and people, that person is simultaneously a target of the latter’s actions which embody their own intentions toward them.
Because materialist ideology reduces the whole world to brute, inanimate matter and portrays human action merely as applying physical force to external objects, we see people every day operating at that level. However, especially among living essences, both individual and collective ones, it is evident that they have intentions distinctive to their higher natures which they willfully present to our intuition, inspiring our respect and admiration. This is not just a matter of romantic interest, for, as seen in the Alder Fork illustration and Indigenous wisdom in general, high-level intentions of different essences can harmonize to produce optimum outcomes for all, accompanied by sublime human joy.
One of the effects of the modern scientific outlook is the habit of generalizing. It claims that everything is fundamentally the same stuff and, up and down the chain of being, things are only generically different. Much of the appeal of science is precisely how it paints everything with the same brush, leading people to ignore the particularity of things which is the real capacity in which they function, where the action really is. I am not some generic human existing in a vacuum, but a particular one who acts in relation to the things immediately around me. People respond to being objects of generalization with efforts to distinguish themselves as individuals, then proceed to take a generalizing attitude toward everything else under the sun. This is especially evident in public affairs which deal with matters in terms of uniform policies and blocs of people. The final transformation under my expanded essentialism is therefore the recognition of things as essences having generic natures but also existing in particular places into which their essences extend and in particular periods of time, bearing the history of their essences over those periods.
I have established that a person’s life extends into the world around their body, giving them a kind of possession of external things which they share with other extended essences. Gaining such possession brings responsibility for the things, and this is shared with the others to whom they belong. Being indivisible with the universe, one’s action is always joint action between the self and other essences, involving the multiple natures of them all. By nature the action of all things harmoniously serves the life of the whole, so as we face the reality of a dying planet, we must act individually and collectively to restore that order. We come then to the perennial moral and political question: What should people do?
Our action must not be haphazard or fragmented, and here again Aristotle provides a plan for rescuing the earth with his hierarchy of functions. We observe that among living beings, higher ones have more capacity for acting than lower ones, and obviously too living things are higher on the chain of being than nonliving entities. Ultimately however the status of a thing is determined by the measure in which its potentiality is actualized. Insofar as the potentiality of something is not actualized that thing is impaired, degraded or degenerate.
While the philosopher’s essentialism is tremendously beneficial in providing a view of a living world, its supreme virtue is its teleology. For today much of what we see in the nonhuman and the human world before us is severely degraded. Being potentially a desert a forest may be destroyed by drought and actually become one. However its primary essence is a forest, the thing it strives to be, so becoming a desert is its ultimate degradation, indeed its death. Similarly the reduction of human functions to those of mere animals is degradation or degeneration as well. Insofar as our culture not only permits this but sets it as the standard our so-called civilization is obscenely degenerate. This is true according to the limited essentialism of Aristotle’s original thought, for people do not strive to practice the classical virtues, much less actually succeed in doing so. Reason has been replaced by hypothetical models, branded mindsets, propaganda and “It’s just your opinion, man.” With the rampant spread of irrationality the law of noncontradiction has effectively been repealed in some quarters.
Further, in terms of my expanded essentialism humans are by nature parts of collective essences which include but are not limited to families, communities, ascending levels of polities, local ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere. With the exception of the last, which is severely degraded, today these essences don’t even exist, as people function as radically separate individuals. Behaving as animals they usually relate to things in instrumental ways: other organisms are mostly potential food to be raised and processed by mechanical means, and they primarily interact with inanimate objects such as computers and other lifeless, limited- or single-function artifacts. So many jobs such as warehouse work, food service, driving taxis and trucks are performed at the level of mechanically-functioning matter, making them prime targets for automation.
The full essence or formal cause of a human being is the unity of all the functions of all their natures, while the final cause is the striving to perfectly fulfill the highest human function. This is citizenship, that is, being a perfect part of a perfect polity, the purpose of which is to secure the well-being of the community and all its residents. As the community is a part of so many natural systems, the polity acts to secure the well-being of these systems as well. Higher levels of government deal with larger systems, with each citizen serving accordingly. Citizens and polities are nested essences within so many other graduated and intersecting natural systems and ultimately nature as a whole. By nature humans strive in their individual and collective capacities to attain the perfection of the total hierarchy of systems. Citizenship is not performing generic functions as an individual, but rather serving as a part of their living polity – interacting with particular people and things in their capacities as parts of all the living systems in which they are included.
This teleology was implicit in my account of life in Ecomysticism which presented a broad attitude for the conduct of life. The present work explains more specifically what things are and how they operate, establishing that people’s primary identity is that of citizens. My next essay Justice provides more detailed guidance for acting as a citizen to serve one’s individual self, community, nation and planet.
From the self-evident facts of sense perception and intuition I have demonstrated the unity and continuity of the living universe. These essential attributes of the world are not matters of theory or vague feeling but are immediately given in common experience. My body is a center of action that extends beyond its boundaries and intersects with other such objects around it. All of my functions embody particular desires, as likewise everything else in the universe acts with specific purposes. Thus all functions are mutual among different objects having manifold natures as they form a multitude of systematic living wholes of which the objects within them are parts.
My account of experience has distinguished the subject and the object. However the universe is a total organism, so at least on the highest level all experience and action are internal functions of this unitary being of which the subject and object are indivisible parts. One can apply one’s individual human faculties to a matter before one and perform an action which may consist in producing an idea or object. That can exhibit novelty, reflecting the particularities of the situation and the performer. Or, the action can arise from the depths of universal life as an act of absolute creativity that emanates into material reality. Universal life is known in universal love. Ultimately one lives and is also free to the extent that they are animated by universal love, something that I will next show entails major transformation of our current mode of life.
1. Aristotle, Metaphysics Book V.
2. Ibid,Book I.
3. Aristotle, De Anima Book II.
4. Carl Zimmer, “Germs in Your Gut Are Talking to Your Brain. Scientists Want to Know What They’re Saying” New York Times January 28, 2019.
5. Aristotle Physics Book III.
6. Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, trans. Jane Billinghurst (Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books, 2016).
7. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 2002).
8. Aristotle, Politics.
9. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics Book VI.
11. Coen, Ethan and Joel Coen, The Big Lebowski. Film. Directed by Joel Coen. Universal City: Gramercy Pictures, 1998.
12. William James, A Pluralistic Universe Hibbert Lectures on the Present Situation in Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co. 1909).
13. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1911).
14. Aristotle, De Anima Bk II Ch. 7.
15. Ibid.,Book III.
16. Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (London: Bantam Press, 2014).
17. Bergson, Creative Evolution,trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911).
18. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), 40-43.
19. Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T.E. Hulme (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912).
The Ecological Inclination offered what is commonly understood as an “objective” account of experience, explaining it from the viewpoint of a detached observer. Within that experience my examination found a prominent desire for consistency, coherence and specific fulfillment. I began the essay describing my attitude toward my beautiful view that was threatened with destruction by a development. I had the desire for my enjoyment of that view to continue and put a great deal of work into opposing the city’s approval of it. The work of myself and the neighbors was eventually successful. We shared the motivation and desire to preserve the natural state of the bluff as it was because we enjoyed it. That is to say, we loved it. In uniting to preserve it we came to love each other and our community, which was the totality formed by the people and the place.
My awareness of that totality was precisely my love for it and was very unlike the unity of images that I formerly explained is imposed by acts of attention to particular contents of sense perception. The latter presents a picture of an objective world of subjects and objects existing independently of each other. I stress that this is a picture, for all that I experience are images, not only of objects but also of my own body. While it was associated with sensory images the love I now speak of was a sense of personal vitality and vital unity with a place, the people and things in it. It also differed from sense perception in having a particularly immediate character. In contrast with love considered as a feeling, sensation or desire which I have previously described, it seemed rather to be a substantive thing in which I the subject was immersed. This is in fact how love has been known to poets, musicians, artists and everyone else familiar with the rapture throughout human history.
I previously developed a complete worldview out of the self-evident truth of sense experience, following the tradition of Western philosophy, particularly empiricism and phenomenology. Now, moving away from that tradition, I proceed to focus my attention on the thing known as love to determine what it is. My method is the same as that which I employed in The Ecological Inclination: I consider it first as a whole then identify its parts.
Like sense experience, for example, seeing the red color, love is also a matter of self-evident truth. In a state of love, a person may be confused about exactly what it is they love. Is it the other person or is it that person’s appearance, their wealth, their power or some other attribute of the person but not the person? Is it even their own state of love, as in being “in love with love”? While confusion, deception and self-deception over the precise object of love are probably the rule rather than the exception, what is absolutely indubitable is the fact that one is in a state of love.
Loves vary in degree and extent. I may say, “I love my hollyhocks,” while the essence of Christianity is love of all men. Loves are also mixed. A person may love their home, which includes the house and the people living in it. To understand love it is necessary to choose a particular one and study it. The love that is widely regarded as supreme is the love of a mother for her child. For me, this is the most revealing.
As I hug my child I feel love for him, and in this state I can examine that love. I find that it is an indivisible awareness of intense, vibrant, absolutely creative and boundless vitality. Its quality is infinitely manifold, containing difference without distinctness, as white light contains all the different colors which only become distinct when refracted. Intensely alive, its vibrance discloses infinitely and universally harmonizing action. Being boundless and absolutely creative, it is infinite and eternal. As I feel this love I am aware of its place: it encompasses myself and my child, in fact, unites us in an indefinite spatial zone of love. This state of love is all-consuming, the quality that Emily Dickinson captured in her lines
That Love is all there is, Is all we know of Love; It is enough, the freight should be Proportioned to the groove.
Previously I classified love as an emotion which colored sensory images. My experience of love for my child is not a coloring or a desire but rather an intuition, that is, the apprehension of an intelligible, as opposed to a sensible object. Such intuition was central to many Western and non-Western systems of thought prior to the modern era which has thoroughly dismissed it as a matter of superstition.
The different attributes of love that I have listed are identified by the same method I previously applied to sensory objects: first apprehending the whole, then focusing attention on the several attributes as attributes of it. Discerning the attributes of love consists of so many additional separate intuitions focused on its quality, vibrance, vitality and boundlessness. This is comparable to visually focusing first on the color, then the shape, then the sheen of the apple. In the images focused on a single attribute, the rest of the apple with its other attributes appear out of focus, in the background, as it were, of the attribute in focus. Similarly with love: it is directly known in the intuition of it alone and also evident in the intuitions of its particular attributes as their ground. For the attributes are intuited as attributes of love. As illustrated in my description of seeing first the whole, then the parts of the geranium, neither the images nor the intuitions of the parts or attributes of objects of experience are the same as they appear or are intuited in the whole object.
Love is the immediate awareness of life. Yet being the awareness of life, a certain manifestation of it but not life per se, it is attenuated, contracted into an experience. Love reveals life, and the examination of love reveals the nature of life. It is found that life is elemental: it is not a composition of nonliving pieces, nor is it the product of nonliving processes. Although it metamorphosizes, it always persists as life, indeed absolutely creative life. Life is unitary and therefore singular, infinite and eternal. It is further a manifold of vital impulses, different but not distinct. and indivisibly united.
The state of love for my son both reveals and affirms the unity of our individual lives. The lover and the beloved are united in what I call a spatially extended zone of love, which is the spatially extended awareness of their conjoined lives. When I feel love for my community, my love has an indefinite spatial extension corresponding in some degree with the physical community. The same is true when I feel love for the world: I feel a unity and a shared destiny with it, although the spatial extension of this feeling is especially indefinite.
Love’s infinite boundlessness reveals that life is the very substance of the universe, continuously extended throughout its total expanse. Particular lives are radiant centers of action which are indivisible parts of the whole universe. As such, they are functional dimensions of it like energy fields. The awareness that constitutes love is a function within the dimension formed by the subject’s indefinitely extended life. Love of the world is the awareness of oneself as an indivisible part of the world while more limited loves are the awareness of oneself as an indivisible part of certain conjoined lives, such as those of a family or community.
Degrees of Life and Love
The manifold quality of particular loves reflects the combined natures of the lover and the beloved. So, my love for my child is qualitatively different from my love for my community and every other particular love of mine. Particular loves are also more and less extensive and more and less comprehensive. Thus one can love a particular geographic place but not the people in it. Or, conversely, one can love all the people but not the place. The most extensive and comprehensive love is the love of all things. This is the love that Lao Tzu refers to as “deep love,”1 which is awareness of oneself as part of the unitary life of the universe.
The variety of loves that I have mentioned illuminates the multiple natures of particular things. They have both individual natures, as with an individual person, and collective natures which are disclosed by different loves. Love for my family is the awareness of my indivisible unity with the rest of my family, which includes me in respect of my nature as a member of the family. Similarly with love for the community: it is awareness of myself specifically as a member of the community conjoined with the rest of the people. Love for the world is awareness of one’s nature specifically as a part of the universe, conjoined with the rest of it.
Love reveals that life is vital willful activity which also has variable degrees. At its most intense, it is particularly expansive, as a living thing puts its whole heart into its life activity. We observe this especially in animals, and an excellent illustration is found in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He describes the mating ritual of the male woodcock which consists in a spiral flight to a great altitude followed by a rapid drop to within inches of the ground. The bird repeats this spectacular display several times each evening during its spring mating season. Seeing it is an awe-inspiring experience, and Leopold’s narrative conveys his awareness of the bird’s profound willful vitality, that is, his love for its special life.2 In other chapters he expresses such love for a particular mountain and marsh, portraying them also as ardently living units.
Leopold calls the woodcock’s ritual “sky dance” in virtue of its special place. As it performs, the bird occupies a certain aerial space. Its movements are a unitary functional relationship between its body and the air in that space. All organisms exist in such places where their lives are indivisible with the other things in those places. Life is further multi-dimensional, with each particular life occupying its own place, which is the common space of multiple such places. This is seen in organisms’ particular habitats, which are defined as the places where they carry on all their functions. Multiple habitats exist in a single space, and they also persist through the generations of the individuals whose habitats they are. In a forest, for example, individual trees display manifold natures as they serve myriad vital functions for many other organisms, among which life and death are relative. The life of every tree is an overlapping set of lives, as at all times each tree sustains and is sustained by many other lives. When one dies, life continues in those organisms that it had nurtured and continues to nurture in death. Such life is eternal and eternally creative.
A person may experience himself as an indivisible part of the unified life in a certain place, and Leopold describes such an experience of his own.3 He was on a fishing trip in hot weather which began vainly in downstream water. After considering what a trout might do, he moved upstream to the cool Alder Fork, where the vegetation, water, sunlight, breeze, trout and himself formed a palpable living whole. Literally merging with the place and applying concentration and skill, he fulfilled his desire to catch some fish. His success was the outcome of a total endeavor on the part of himself and every component of the place, extending over the course of his day-long quest. The total life of the place, which on that day included Leopold, culminated in the total event of his audacious landing of the last trout. He felt the total fulfillment of that living place in a spatially extended awareness of its unified vital activity.
The feeling of love is an attenuated manifestation of life which is otherwise activity, not feeling. Yet it expresses the orientation or willful intention of one’s activity. I don’t just have a feeling of love for my child; much of my life’s activity is directed at and consists in caring for him, serving his interest. So with other loves: they reflect the intention of one’s activity. As the awareness of activity, love does not exist without it. There is no loving without doing. At a minimum, saying things like “I love the people in my city” means that I am consistently friendly in my encounters with them. Of course it can mean much more in terms of service in their interest. Love of all things means acting in the interest of all things both individually and collectively.
As seen in Leopold’s experience in the Alder Fork, love reflects collective action. Any time people act together with a shared purpose, there is a measure of love among them. In a vegetable garden the life activity of the plants is united with that of the gardener to form a palpable living whole. The pleasure of harvesting the vegetables is a common though milder analogue of Leopold’s rapture in catching the fish. Indeed, love invariably reflects shared willful activity. My child contributes to my life, as does my community and the world. We interact, we are interdependent and have a shared purpose. So love captures, so to speak, some portion, or all of willful life activity in the world.
Much of my life activity involves no feeling of love at all, for I am mostly engaged in living, not feeling. Thus there are degrees of love, ranging from intense passion to minimal enjoyment. As love is the immediate awareness of life, so these degrees of love are degrees of awareness of life and also awareness of degrees of life. Leopold’s experience in the Alder Fork is an example of especially expansive human life activity and the awareness of it. Comparing it to normal life activity and awareness the latter are seen to be much less intense and far less in scope. As awareness of willful activity, love has temporal extension, and these admit of degrees as well – longer and shorter-term loves.
Everything I do is some willful life activity. These include bodily actions and awareness, such as the awareness of love. My sense perception is also a life activity. Instead of moving my body or having an awareness that literally extends beyond my body, sense perception presents me with images.
In The Ecological Inclination I explored sensory images, treating them specifically as images. When I look across my room with the intention of examining what I see as images what I see is a two-dimensional image of the other side of the room and the contents over there. This isn’t normal seeing. Normally I look over there and I see the images of objects literally over there, at a distance from the image of my body. My visual perception is three-dimensional, having depth as well as height and width.
My examination of love has revealed that as my love forms an extended zone around my body, so does my life. Love involves the awareness of the spatial extension of my life, which constitutes a certain dimension of the world. So my experience of love belongs to this dimension, as do my sense perceptions. Together they form a three-dimensional space of experience around my body, which is a certain functional realm of my life. The images of things that I see are literally over there, approximately where their objects are.
I introduced intuition with an examination of love, a particularly intangible thing, but there is also intuition of common tangible objects. As my feeling of love extends into the space around my body, it reveals the continuity of my life, which intersects with the lives of other things. My experience of their lives may take the form of love for them or consist of intuition of their lives. Thus, for example, my experience of my cat is not just the image of a black shape. I am aware of its very life, and this awareness is intuition of it. Like the awareness of the object of my love, my intuition of the cat is in the space of my experience which corresponds to the physical space in which the cat actually is. Normal experience is a combination of sensory perception and intuition. As I intuit the cat’s very life, that is its essence, over there, my visual image of its color and shape are also over there, in a certain location in the space of my experience.
In contrast with the feeling of love, which is the awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and beloved, intuition presents the life of its object as somewhat distinct from the subject. Obviously my intuition of the cat is a part of my life, yet it grasps the cat’s life as relatively autonomous. Intuition is awareness of the very life of a thing, but it is not the thing, so intuiting it does not allow me to move it or control its activity. Thus my grasp of the thing, of which I am aware in virtue of it intersecting with my life, is a reduction for me both of it and me.
I have introduced intuition as my awareness of the very life of a thing and which is located in the space of my experience corresponding to the place of that thing. But of course not everything around me is an autonomous living thing. Although rocks are inorganic, they have a distinct nature, and that is the object of my intuition of them. Man-made objects, on the other hand, are neither alive nor natural. They are artifacts created for human use.
The intuition of living things, being awareness of their very lives, discloses their will to live, to function and exist as what they are. After all, the business of plants and animals is mostly to survive and grow, and their functions serve themselves. In contrast, the function of artifacts is their actual use by people, for example the function of a hammer is hammering, not lying in the toolbox. A hammer can’t function by itself; it must be swung by a person who understands what a hammer is and how to use it. The will to pound the nails, therefore, is not in the hammer but in the person actually using it. So intuition of an actual hammer is intuition of a person using it as a hammer. Otherwise my intuition of the hammer is awareness of its potential use and further includes the will to use it in an attenuated form. Provided that one knows what their uses are, the intuition of all artifacts not in actual use involves the subtle desire and impulse to put them to their proper use. Relative to the intuition of living things and artifacts in actual use, such intuition constitutes a further degree of reduction of life activity.
When I am in a room and see an empty chair, I have a subtle desire and urge to go and sit in the chair. Seeing a doorway, I have a slight impulse to walk through it. As we live today in a mostly man-made world, we are in fact continually pulled in countless directions by the things around us. Sitting in my room, I see a window that can be raised; a fan that can be switched on, drawers that can be pulled open, lamps that can be turned on and shelves of books that can all be read. I concentrate on the image I see on my computer screen and on my writing to escape this deluge of demands.
Natural things today also mostly serve human uses and are therefore commonly intuited like artifacts, not autonomous living things. We fail to grasp trees and flowers as living things when we regard them as objects to beautify our surroundings. Crops and livestock are viewed as food, not living plants and animals. People, too, are viewed primarily in instrumental capacities – the bureaucrat, the salesperson, the stranger – and not as living human beings.
Using things, natural and man-made, is life activity. To the extent that my use is limited, so is my life activity with respect to them. My life activity is also limited to the extent that the objects I use are limited. There are countless ways in which I can use a fresh potato, but only one way that I can use a plate of French fries. One of the ways I can use a potato is to plant some of the eyes, tend the bushes and harvest new potatoes. I can prepare them in many ways, store, package and sell them. I can also serve them at dinner and enjoy eating them with family and friends. There is much potential life activity in a potato. Yet life today is filled with ready-made and ready-to-use objects. There is also extreme division and commodification of labor. Few people grow any of their own food or prepare it from scratch, and keeping the home in repair is mostly contracted out. Automation takes contraction of life activity to a whole new level, minimizing human functions in mechanized or computerized processes.
A further reduction of both the subject and object is constituted by sense perception. In contrast with intuition, sense perception fails to disclose to me the life of the thing that I see. I have no experience of its vital nature, rather only its external appearance. Moreover, this appearance is for me alone, with its particular angle of view, perspective and so forth. Sense perception was explored at length in The Ecological Inclination, so I now leave it to consider the other kinds of objects in the world that constitute a progressive scale of life reduction.
The next degree of reduction of life and love consists of sense perception of pictures – art, photos, videos and films. Such images are man-made objects, and their primary use is to be seen as representations of their subjects. Videos and films with audio add recorded sounds to the recorded visual images. Radio and telephone transmissions as well as strictly audio recordings are electronic representations of original sounds. All of these are strictly sensory images created to stand apart from their tangible subjects. Face-to-face with a person, I am aware of their life, indeed, our shared life in the world. Watching them on Zoom or having a phone conversation with them excludes such intuition, and I am left with lifeless representations.
Sentiment, however, can be added to the experience of seeing or hearing such representations. In a phone call with my child I feel my love for him and am aware of our shared life. My life intersects with his even though he is physically in another state, and my feeling of love is the awareness of this intersection. I also feel this love when I look at his photograph on the wall or on Facebook.
Most of the people and things represented in images have no such personal connection, so their images are to me little more than lifeless representations. Though flat, they still belong to my life activity and relate more or less to its past and present. So, for example, I see images of immigrant children in cages, associate them with historical precedents and am moved to join the local protest rally. The constricted life activity of seeing the images thus gives rise to the expansive activity of protesting.
Beyond pictures and recordings of actual things, a further reduction of life activity is constituted by language. Linguistic representations of things and events are not the things and therefore remove us from those things. In-person spoken language entails the presence of the speaker and hearer while spoken language transmitted electronically and written language sets them apart and therefore doubles the reduction of life activity.
Language may have major impact in the world, for example the order “Charge!” in a battle or the use of military history records and other communications in warfare. The point I want to stress about language is that, compared to love and non-linguistic forms, it is an especially limited manifestation of life activity. The history of the battle is not the battle, and the readers of it are in their armchairs, not the trenches.
Unlike pictures, no modern language resembles anything non-linguistic. Ancient hieroglyphics come closest to such representation with ideograms getting second place. The spoken languages corresponding to written practices are altogether different. Resemblance between words and things is limited to onomatopoeia. So language not only reduces immediate life activity, it translates it into the other media of spoken and written words. This reduction is very evident with human life so dominated by language in our information age.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” says the cliché, and this is true. Verbal representations are at a further remove from their subjects than visual representations. In addition, verbal expression goes far beyond objective representation as there is a whole social dimension in linguistic communication.
Then there are the matters of interpretation and meaning. Jean Baudrillard maintains that there are no objective uses of language whatsoever. At a minimum, the speaker or writer selects something out of the whole world to speak or write about, asserting that it is the thing that is important now and the rest isn’t. Once the focus is chosen, it advances. The words are first “The house at 100 Main Street is on fire.” Next comes “The fire truck has arrived,” then “The fire is being extinguished” and so on.
What people ordinarily say and write, moreover, reflects their personal history and worldview. With the case of the house fire, they expect the fire truck to come and the fire to be extinguished. They don’t say, “What’s this blaring red machine?” or “Why aren’t they extinguishing the fire instantly?” or “People have no right to fire protection.”
Much verbal communication conveys ideology, and there is a good amount of sheer propaganda. “We’re fighting the Vietnam War to stop the advance of Chinese communism” is a prime example. So language serves to impose interpretations on life activity.
Scientific language selects certain aspects of things and redefines them. A rock, for example, is a natural object which physics defines as a certain quantity of mass having a certain quantity of force due to gravity. Chemistry defines the rock as having a certain chemical composition. An animal is another natural object which biology defines as being of a certain species and composed of cells and other physiological parts.
A major aspect of science is quantification, which compounds its reduction of life activity. A patient in an intensive care unit is hooked up to multiple monitors that register different vital signs. Such technology is life-saving, but it directs attention to these measurements and away from the living human being. Especially at the end of life this preoccupation raises questions concerning quality of life.
The supremely quantified science is economics, the focus of which is profit. Neoliberal economics “externalizes” certain costs of business to society which include inequality and environmental damage. Financial activity is an especially extreme reduction of life as its material is financial instruments. Apart from physical cash, money is nothing but accounting entries, much of which exists strictly in electronic form. Further, financial activity can become exponentially detached from actual things. There are countless financial abuses of people that include usury, speculation, leveraged buyouts and fraud; then there are derivatives and pyramided debt. The financialization of the global economy is at the heart of very many of the world’s ills. Its phantom nature is exposed in every crash, which nevertheless causes massive loss of tangible property and livelihoods and produces real pain and suffering.
The languages used by politicians, historians, journalists, economists and scientists treat everything as something other than what it ultimately is, which is manifestations of universal life. Language is a form of life activity which is thoroughly intertwined with nonverbal life activity and plays a large role in directing the latter. The meaning of language is to a significant degree merely its links with past and present experience. In any case, language involves reduction of life activity, detachment from nonverbal life and limited or distorted representation of things. These deficiencies are especially apparent and disturbing insofar as so much human life today consists of the experience of common and specialized languages. This experience is also highly fragmented, with new information continually displacing the old and reducing links with the past and present. It is further contracted insofar as it consists of sound bytes and discrete bits of one-dimensional language.
Above I separated nonverbal images and language for the purpose of discussion. Today we are inundated with images combined with information in print and electronic media. These are powerful tools of propaganda, indeed mind control, that rely on repetition and deception. The massive impact that propaganda has speaks volumes about the contraction of life in general today to media, where brand and icon play dominant roles. “Trump” is a brand stamped on all of his business assets and political actions. He himself is an icon representing wealth, power and celebrity. Much more than the actual person, his followers admire these qualities which give him an immense presence in the world. To follow him is literally to contribute to his power and celebrity and therefore to share in them. Otherwise his followers are suffering loss of individual wealth and political power. While he was president Trump was an icon in which the life activity of a nation was contracted into his image.
He is a particular icon, but life today abounds with objects serving as more generic signs. A sign is not the thing it signifies nor does it, like a picture, resemble that thing which is itself often intangible. A common form is the sign of status. A mcmansion is a sign of wealth which may be owned by a person actually drowning in debt. Nearly every perceptible aspect of people’s lives is in fact a conventional sign of status – their speech, physical condition, dress, hair, job, house, address and much more. Signs are yet another degree of contraction of life activity which overlies the other kinds of experience. To consider people in terms of signs is to impose certain identities on them and to treat them in those capacities rather than as living human beings. At the same time signs of status play an enormous role in consumer behavior. Much of the stuff that people purchase (and rapidly dispose of) identifies them as having a certain status, especially as being “with it.” People consciously advertise their status with their consumer choices and activity. Thus the contraction of life activity through signs of status is a two-way street: people both narrowly, superficially and sometimes falsely identify themselves and are so identified by others through the signification of objects and actions.
The final degree of life reduction consists of thoughts and images of memory, imagination and dreams. My account of language above refers to audible and visible language, which belong to sensory experience. The kind of experience that is considered strictly cerebral has minimal or no spatial extension and therefore minimal or no immediate effect on the world outside the subject. Of course it may have immense effect insofar as it constitutes preparation for or as guidance for external action.
I have surveyed the hierarchy of life and love, tracing its degrees of reduction. The body is the center of one’s life action, and although its action radiates into and is shared with neighboring people, things and places, this action is limited. Compared with the totality of universal life, it is a small, possibly infinitesimally small, blip. It is limited not only in terms of its spatial reach and impact on the world but also its time span. The body is mortal, coming to be out of universal life and passing away back into it. This mortal life is a reduction of universal life, the limitation of which is removed with the body’s death.
Love discloses that the fundamental reality is universal life. Its universality is evident in especially expansive love, the greatest being the love of all things. Love is not life, but the immediate awareness of life, and particular loves are the immediate awareness of particular parts of universal life or particular life activities. My love for my child is the immediate awareness of our joint life activity. Universal life is indivisible, so this awareness is not distinct but occupies an indefinite zone in the space of my experience, with its quality being fairly indistinct as well. There is evidently an immense variety of loves which differ with respect to their quality, extent and intent. Love for all people is extensive but selective; it omits everything nonhuman. Love for a certain person is narrow in extent and intent.
Fully Living Is Inseparable from Fully Loving
Swedenborg wrote that a man’s life is his love.4 One’s life is large and full in proportion to their love, the greatest life being that animated by the love of all things. This love is the awareness of one’s life activity as part of the total life of the universe and is directed at the good of all things, that is, at serving all things. So we return to the model of global sustainability or universal justice as the total goal of one’s life action.
Life activity however consists of countless particular actions involving innumerable particular objects. Being animated by the love of all things therefore means a couple of things: First, as far as possible, putting one’s whole heart into one’s actions. Affirm life! Don’t deny or diminish your own life. Second, exercise intuition: be aware of things as living beings. This is especially pertinent in regard to human relations as people are usually treated as strangers of no account or in some instrumental capacity. To intuit the very life of another person is to respect them as a human being. Intuition of other people involves awareness of their degree of life affirmation, something that typically needs improvement but which can be lifted somewhat by one’s own spirit. Finally, being animated by the love of all things means engaging in activities that advance the goal of universal justice. Presently there is little activity directed at this vision. Good intentions are aimed at innumerable limited objectives that do not all add up to it, thus limiting organized progress.
In our time we face the “end of nature,” mass destruction of life on earth and growing global human conflict. There is much discouragement among those aware of the crisis. A vital source of strength for them is provided by life as I have described it. Each living thing in the world is a radiant and creative source of life, indivisible with universal life and therefore ultimately in the service of the whole.
Human beings are apparently unique among living things in that they can voluntarily love more or less and also voluntarily expand or contract their life activity. In the Christian tradition this phenomenon has been attributed to man’s free will. It is enough for our purpose here to understand that human love can embrace all things or a very few things. Similarly, human life activity can serve all things or a very few things. Love is a relation – the awareness of the shared life of two or more things, so although much is said of “self-love,” it is an oxymoron. Narcissists’ love is not for themselves, but for their images, as the mythical Narcissus was in love with his reflection in the water.
A person lives to the degree that they are animated by the love of all things and acts to serve all things. Such conduct of course consists of so many specific actions. With the dominance of information in our time, much action to serve the world must therefore consist in communication such as lobbying. Talk is a substantial reduction of life activity but is justified by its universal intention. This universal love is the principal redemption in our otherwise fallen human world.
Meanwhile, to do good we must survive. Bodily weakness and pain definitely reduce life activity, and death extinguishes it. To stay alive and functional in our present world requires being some part of the infernal machine. Trump’s policies for immigrants and refugees were executed by ICE and other government officials, and they exemplified the banality of evil described by Hannah Arendt. The same is true of people working in fossil fuel extraction, coal miners especially, who live in otherwise very economically depressed regions. Most people are wage laborers in the system of global neoliberal capitalism.
Apart from contributing to the destruction of the world, people’s individual life activity tends to be severely diminished. They work in order to earn money to consume. There is little or no worker ownership or even sense of ownership of the means of production or the product. This contrasts with craftsmanship, where the worker owns the tools, personally gives form to the material and, as Marx said, “sees himself” in the product.5 We also have what Marx called “commodity fetishism” in which the product stands alone before the consumer, detached from the workers who produced it. We don’t see the people making goods nor the production process. In our time there is further what I call “expanded commodity fetishism” which is ignorance of the environmental effects of products. People are generally in the dark about the production, transportation, disposal and usage impacts of consumer objects. A stunning example of this is the massive use of smartphones for taking photos and communicating during the People’s Climate March. Both kinds of commodity fetishism are especially significant in the globalized economy where consumer items are mostly produced in third world sweatshops, produce is grown and harvested in appalling work conditions, global food and product safety standards are progressively weakened and environmental costs are externalized everywhere. All this is magnified by the fact that nearly every kind of production and service is commodified. Rather than making things and performing functions for themselves people mostly pay others to do the work, and this practice is largely the effect of having to spend an inordinate amount of time working and commuting. People are wage laborers in an economic system driven strictly by the profit motive in which workers, consumers, the environment and democracy are disposable. Today’s ruling class is the global corporate elite which nevertheless defers to the God-almighty market. Global neoliberal capitalism is a total system in which, according to Zygmunt Bauman, people function not as swimmers but as plankton6, and which Egberto Willies calls the new slavery.7
That people prefer the craftsman model is demonstrated by their enthusiasm for cooking with basic ingredients and gardening. I previously compared growing one’s own vegetables to Leopold’s Alder Fork experience. People especially enjoy events such as Thanksgiving dinners to which everyone contributes a dish. Eating the dinner together is the culmination of the whole process in which the people feel a special bond and share a sense of fulfillment of their collective purpose. This sense is akin to that also felt at times among activists and volunteers when they win in their issue or electoral campaigns.
Affirming life today means seeking to reverse the present life-denying, indeed life-destroying trajectory of the world. The Enlightenment myth of continual progress lingers, but we are in fact on a course of rapid regression. As technology has invaded more and more of life its mystique has remained or even grown, causing people to fear any reduction of it. In this regard Lao Tzu’s admonition, “Know when to stop,” must be heeded. Scientific and technological “progress” has been devastatingly blind and indiscriminate, and the time has come to require it to put people and planet first. In a better world there would be a loss of total wealth and mobility, but much needed gains in community bonds. People would also no longer be controlled in thought and deed by the truly totalitarian global neoliberal capitalist system.
This essay has built up a complete picture of the world from the self-evident truth revealed in love, providing the guidance for life that follows from this truth. The life that it prescribes is that of the individual: to feel universal love and act to serve all things. As love is always to some degree mutual, the person who loves the world has some feeling of the world loving them in return. In such a life there is enchantment, unconditional life affirmation, strength and hope.
By nature every living being is a particular configuration within the infinite, eternal and absolutely creative universal life whose full effort is directed at performing its function in the universally harmonizing life of the whole. This life is supremely active, a condition Aldo Leopold captured in his observation of the call of the grebe which seemed to dominate and unify all the wildlife sounds in a Manitoba marsh. He wrote, “…perhaps it is the grebe who reminds them that if all are to survive, each must ceaselessly feed and fight, breed and die.”8
Humans can obviously fall short of living fully. Christians regard such failure as sin, the universal consequence of Adam’s original sin. In the Ancient Greek tradition it was failure to fulfill one’s human nature by practicing the classical virtues, first among which was courage. Lao Tzu wrote, “Because of deep love, one is courageous.”9
Fully living in the manner I have described, one can accomplish some good, lead and inspire other people. Common experience is very far from this model. On the social front action according to this paradigm attempts to return to paradise – to get people to establish bonds with each other and the earth. How to do this? There is no formula, and experience shows that the desired consciousness arises in responses to major threats to the community but otherwise exists only in exceptional situations. Then there is the whole question of what to do in these circumstances. NIMBYs often embark on litigation, which commodifies their response. That is, the actual work of opposition is transferred to lawyers, and the group’s main activity is raising funds to pay them. At the other extreme, we have the Occupy Wall Street case in which people took the occupation and their experience of it as ends in themselves. There was broad resistance to expanding the movement to other issues, targets and electoral work.
Protest rallies are mini OWSs, while electoral campaigns can create temporary communities. We are continually confronted with the question of what to do after the event, after the election. On the one hand, there is the matter of keeping the people together. The second issue is what should the people do?
Having been active in so many particular issue and electoral campaigns, I am aware of some major challenges. The first is that although a quite large number of people are fired up over things happening in the country, far too many are unengaged. Volunteering in recent elections I found that it has become harder to reach people: they pick up their phones and answer their doors less and less. Even people I know respond less to phone calls, emails, texts and Facebook messages. So while there appear be more concerned people, their connections are becoming worse. Lancaster Stands Up has achieved a great breakthrough with a method that combines values-centered messaging, canvassing, town hall meetings and local cells. It has made a critical contribution to what is otherwise the implementation of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution strategy that prioritizes electing candidates up and down the ballot who support his agenda.
In activism overall what I find missing is the vital component of a movement identified by Grace Lee Boggs in her statement
To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more 'human' human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.10
Water Protectors’ resistance has amplified and publicized Native American consciousness of people’s unity with their land and resources and among themselves. Assuming such indigenous consciousness has always been a challenge for outsiders, as it is intrinsically tied to native people’s way of life – their culture, which is the continuation of their history. Four Arrows, an individual of Irish/Cherokee descent with a long record of involvement with Native Americans, published an article entitled “Can Adopting a Complementary Indigenous Perspective Save Us?”11 The key word here is “perspective,” which is in fact that of dedicated environmentalists. Yet apart from personal conservation habits and advocacy activities such people presently fall short of living in full harmony with the earth and fellow humans.
Building a community from scratch in which the people are united with each other and their place was actually achieved by Grace Lee and James Boggs in Detroit. The two were very-long term activists, starting out as Marxists in the 1930s, and their work continued until Grace’s death at the age of 100 in 2015. Their early experience established the core principle of solidarity, which for them was actual collective consciousness. James Boggs came from a tiny but close-knit community of Black sharecroppers in Alabama. Grace was a Chinese-American brought up in the spirit of Confucianism, which values human relationships over individual merit. Through participation in the Back Marxist, labor and civil rights movements, they built a large global network of people with whom they shared publications, correspondence and conversations – all supremely human associations. Following the 1967 Detroit Rebellion in which over the course of five days 43 people were killed, 342 were injured, nearly 1,400 buildings were burned and some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops were called into service, James and Grace shifted their focus to community building. In 2011 Grace recorded the achievements of that endeavor to date.12 Most notable was Detroit Summer, which included youth-centered urban farming, housing rehabilitation, arts, education and social services – all aimed at self-sufficiency. The paramount value guiding these community activities was love. Expanding the traditional African American focus on respect and economic progress, Grace also emphasized environmental sustainability through local production to meet essential needs and the rejection of consumerism. The economy she envisioned was precisely that of the community David Korten13 insists is required to avoid global climate catastrophe. Grace saw another benefit of her project especially for urban youth: it provided meaning for their lives. She advocated reforming American education to move away from programming youth to be workers in the inhuman neoliberal capitalist system. Our educational system in fact has as one of its principal functions to select and eliminate, that is, to sort people into social and economic classes and to dispose of the rest. Education, she said, should include engagement in sustainable community building and the political process. She particularly targeted urban youth who are the prime subjects of disposal by the system which casts them into the streets and prison.
Conditions in Michigan became much worse after 2011 and Grace’s death, with the administration of Rick Snyder and the Flint water crisis. In their time Grace and Jimmy had a unique opportunity to build a community in Detroit. The place had indeed hit rock bottom; they were long-term highly respected citizens and, perhaps most importantly, there was a vast amount of vacant land in the city. They made remarkable progress toward their goal of a self-reliant beloved community. Still, as family-sustaining jobs, decent affordable housing and healthcare remained insufficient Grace held high hopes for the Obama era. We subsequently witnessed the backlash to that and the incredible regression of the Trump era.
Conscious unity of people and place exists, as exemplified by certain NIMBY uprisings, Native American tribes and Grace and Jimmy Boggs’ Detroit community. This essay has explained what it is – the awareness of the full life of these places, in other words, all-encompassing love. It further presents a complete world view based on such love. Like the other paradigm laid out in The Ecological Inclination, this one provides a certain direction for life and moral satisfaction to be gained from following it.
Grace’s and Four Arrows’ way of life and perspective are transformational. They are means of overcoming individualism by redefining the individual as primarily an organic part of the local and global community as well as of nature. Their positions go far beyond “All is one. Om.” For they also define the specific context of the individual who is an indivisible part of the whole.
Still, their ideals depend on both the cooperation and enlightenment of other people. Unity among the people and place can assume a sinister form as expressed, for example, in the phrase Blut und Boden which has been revived among supporters of Trump. The extreme crises we face today require a more precise system of understanding, method and goal. We need to transform ourselves, and we can do this by affirming that our primary identity is as citizens. The insights and values of my pair of essays are preserved and enriched in the third moment of the dialectical process which I present next in Citizenship.
Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching, 67.
2. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970) 32-6.
3. Ibid. p. 40-3.
4. Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christian Religion,n. 399.
5. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society Translated and Edited by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1967) 295.
6. Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001) 196.
7. Egberto Willies, “The New Form of Slavery is Not Racial, but Subtle, More Dangerous and Affects All” Daily Kos November 4, 2018.
Calls for urgent climate action and a shift to global sustainability are multiplying fast in the infosphere. While the most common argument made is for human survival there are others such as economic and aesthetic ones. This article presents the case for the ecological civilization based on the nature of sense experience which displays a fundamental desire for consistency, coherence and comfort. A philosophical examination of this desire leads directly to the vision of total global sustainability. Modern thinking takes sense experience to be the ultimate source of truth, dismissing the previously recognized spiritual and intuitive sources as superstitious or nonexistent. Despite the limitations of Anglo-American empiricism and Continental phenomenology I adhere to their methods as I explore sense experience, considering it strictly as experience.
I open my eyes and I see a panorama of colored shapes. At the near edge I see the images of my hands and my legs in front of me. I also have the sensation of my body touching my chair. Taking my experience as a whole I find that my experience isn’t in my body, but rather that my body is in my experience.
I can look at the whole scene or I can focus my gaze on one object in it – the hanging basket, for example. When I look at it specifically I see it distinctly, with objects around it appearing less distinctly as a background. I can look at a lamp in the same way, seeing it distinctly against a less distinct background. Then I look specifically at the shade. Now it is most distinct while the base is less so. In this way I see the shade as part of the lamp. While I can only see the hanging basket as a distinct whole object and not as a part of anything else, I cannot see the lamp shade in any other way but as part of the lamp unless it is removed and set apart from the base. My perception defines objects depending on where I focus my attention, with contents compelling me to see them as whole objects or parts of whole objects.
My experience also has a temporal dimension. Strictly speaking it is only in the present which is a brief interval rather than an instant. It is, however, continuous and reveals a desire for consistency. For as I sit in my room I feel comfortable that the image of it and everything in it will remain constant. I would feel sudden discomfort if there were an earthquake tremor or the power went out. At the same time I expect to experience certain changes. When I put my dough in the oven I expect to see a baked loaf an hour later. If then it’s still raw dough I’m uncomfortably surprised.
Experience includes the five senses plus emotions and non-sensory mental phenomena. An extremely important kind of experience is language which is heard or seen as written figures. What makes language meaningful? I see some words on a screen, and I hear myself saying, “Zebra.” “Pen.” “Drive.” Sky.” They are so many separate words. Then I see and say, “Today is Monday, March 22.” This is a sentence which I see as a continuous whole image and which I hear myself say as a continuous whole sound. It is meaningful in virtue of its sensory unity, while the first set of words is meaningless in virtue of its sensory disunity. That is to say, the sentence is coherent while the separate words are incoherent. The first satisfies my desire for coherence, and the second doesn’t. In addition words have definitions. If I see a round red object with the word “apple” beside it I feel comfortable. Seeing the word “orange” there makes me uncomfortable.
These basic observations could be expanded to apply to all experience: some contents are experienced separately and others as parts of unitary wholes. Moreover experience is loaded, so to speak, with expectations for contemporaneous and sequential contents, reflecting desire for consistency and coherence. This explains why custom, culture and technology exist in human life.
I don’t feel the desire for consistency and coherence. It is only revealed in feelings of fulfilled or frustrated expectations. Other kinds of desire are experienced as feelings. These include hunger and thirst, which are felt as sensations in the body and are satisfied by consuming food and drink. Some feelings are painful or pleasurable, and not all, like hunger and thirst, are desires. Excessive cold and heat are painful, while warming and cooling relief are pleasurable. The feelings I have mentioned relate to survival, and although personal death is not an object of experience for anyone, the painful fear of death is a salient emotion. Experience as a whole tends to revolve around experiences related to survival.
Certain experiences involve exceptional degrees of coherence. A sentence is a whole with a certain meaning, and it is composed of words which have separate individual meanings. A true work of art is not such a collection of parts, not even a poem. The parts are indivisible with the whole, and it inspires a sense of beauty. A landscape may be seen as a beautiful composition and further inspire a sense of awe or wonder. Having a lesser degree of coherence, beautiful or wondrous organisms may be seen as wholes and their parts specifically as parts of their wholes but never as separate and distinct objects. This is also true for organic communities formed by schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of mammals and intact ecosystems. Organic parts can only be perceived as separate and distinct insofar as they are viewed in some other respect. Examples are a tree branch viewed as a prong on which to hang a bird feeder or as the support for a bird’s nest. Beauty, wonder and awe have opposites – the feelings of repulsion, horror and shock inspired by things such as corpses and scenes of catastrophe as well as marked discord.
An incredible amount of experience at present consists of information. Instead of tackling its overwhelming volume and complexity I reduce it all to the matter of coherence. A sentence I comprehend is read or heard as a whole. One I don’t understand is not experienced as a whole, but rather as separate bits. I see the words on the page; I understand some of them, but I don’t see them all fitting together. In addition, there is the matter of truth and falsity. Either I see the round red image fitting with the word beside it, making the label true, or I don’t, making it false. All of understanding boils down to comprehending linguistic objects rather than being boggled by them and finding that they fit with their correlated nonlinguistic and linguistic objects.
The totality of sense experience consists of perceptions, emotions and linguistic phenomena, all underlain by desire for consistency and coherence. A total experience may be concentrated on content related to bodily survival. It may also be “low-information” or laden with nonfactual or false information. The former kind is impoverished, for there can be so much more that enriches it and brings pleasure. The latter kinds are dangers to themselves, setting the stage for painful reality checks, because resistance to cognitive dissonance only goes so far. Catastrophic impacts from climate change, zoonotic pandemic and global economic non-sustainability are perfectly realistic expectations now.
Experience’s desires for consistency, coherence and comfort are satisfied by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment to which I referred in Change the Dominant Idea. One of its principal virtues is that it creates human communities – living wholes of which each person is an organic part. Today human “communities” are commonly no more unities than random words on a sheet of paper. Virtually all that the separate items share are places – in the case of the town a geographic space and in that of the words the page. Further, participatory democracy in living communities enhances not only everyone’s life and freedom but also their experience. If my experience were set in the ideal community I would perceive my body performing maximum service to myself, my community and the earth.
Another emotion that belongs to experience is moral satisfaction or pleasure, of which the proposed experience would provide plenty. Like other varieties of pleasure, it has some opposites – the painful feelings of shame and guilt. Achieving the ideal experience with its pleasures would prevent these painful feelings and many others that are expected to accompany its non achievement.
According to strict empiricism and phenomenology experience is all there is. It follows that a person should want theirs to be the best possible. Everyone in fact does, regardless of their philosophy. I will add that the two interpretations reduce language to nothing but sounds and figures on paper that have correlations with images of objects and other such sounds and figures. This makes beauty, harmony and joy supreme, an insight which Beethoven acknowledged in the words “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
Much environmental action is motivated by threats of destruction to natural beauty. I have been active in several preservation campaigns, notably for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Images of it are magnificent, inspiring love and wonder. Still, my desire to save ANWR was nothing compared to the passion I felt in my battle to prevent a beautiful tree-covered bluff directly behind my home from being replaced by a massive three story-high condo development. The view of the bluff was beautiful, and I loved it, even had a sense of possession of it. I felt it belonged to me, was part of me, which, if it were destroyed, would constitute a violation of me. This sense was fascinating and mysterious, so I undertook to understand it. What follows is the product of that effort which is a phenomenological psychology of perception that reveals a fundamental human desire for an ecologically sound world.
The way in which I have just expressed my conception of the view initially seems unusual, but it actually captures the common attitude. Of course our visual images belong to us, are part of us. We just don’t normally think of them as possessions which might disappear in, say a natural catastrophe, or be taken away from us. But put yourself in the place of people whose surroundings have been suddenly destroyed. Spirit Lake in Washington state had been an extremely attractive site for vacation homes and camping. However it was virtually destroyed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens which replaced the beautiful view with the scene of a nuclear explosion. Around me emerald ash borers are causing the woods to become defiled with innumerable dead trees. Japanese beetles strip my grape vines and fruit trees. Lovely scenes are now unsightly – the source of my pleasant experience, indeed the experience itself, has been taken away from me. This is a loss from which I suffer and feel pain.
This way of thinking about cherished views reifies them, that is, gives them a reality distinct from the material things of which they are views and the things we commonly regard views as, which is neurological events in our brains. We’re told that our visual images are inside our heads, not out in the space beyond our heads. Odd as it sounds to say that visual images have an existence outside of our bodies and are possessed, so to speak, by us, this is exactly how I regarded my view in the neighborhood affair. It is, however, ultimately the very position of strict empiricist and phenomenological philosophies which interpret everything in the universe in terms of outer and inner perceptions. I follow these traditions to build an account of all experience starting from its basic elements.
The experience that I describe is my own. I cannot share anyone else’s sense perception or thoughts. In fact I can never know if your experience is similar to mine or even if you are a conscious being at all.
Sensory Objects Defined by Focused Perception
So to begin, I open my eyes and I see a panorama of colors and shapes. The image of my room and the things in it is about a 160-degree view with the image of parts of my body being at the center of the base of the arc. I do not see the images of things around me in my body; rather I see my body as an image occupying a particular location in the total picture. That is to say, my experience is not in my body, but my body is in my experience.
My sense experience is an immediately given fact which consists of so many sensory images that include the image of my body. I have no experience of a “self” apart from these images, nor does my experience present a “self” which has the experiences or performs actions. Looking strictly at my experiences, I conclude that my self is my experience and nothing else. As my experience reveals no self apart from the experience, neither does it reveal a material world existing apart from it. From the strict standpoint of my experience, nothing else beside it exists.
While my description of experience that follows is written largely in the first person and active voice, it could equally have been written in the passive voice, omitting myself as the subject. I have made this choice for the sake of stylistic ease but advise the reader that my doing so in no way alters the basic truth of the empirical method. That it is what I have stated is the standard view in the tradition of Western philosophy: outer and inner sense perception present neither a subject which has such perceptions nor actual external things.
My visual picture is not fixed like a photograph. While the whole panorama of my visual field is always in view, my attention and gaze are focused on certain parts of it. Such selection makes a given part the center of my attention, and it appears distinct and in focus, while the rest is seen somewhat indistinctly and out of focus. I see the window across the room and I focus my gaze on the latch. My image of it is a dark metal-colored, sharply outlined shape surrounded by less distinct images of the window frame, reflection on the glass and objects outside the window. Beyond these objects the rest of the room appears very indistinctly in my peripheral vision. This particular visual experience is temporally extended, being a continuous part of my conscious experience since I woke up this morning. If I shift my focus to the top of the frame of the lower pane to which the latch is attached, that horizontal white shape is in sharp focus and the latch is less so. Looking again particularly at the latch, I see as the background in my image a rather indistinct mass in shades of green. When I shift my focus, it becomes a more distinct image of the tree outside the window, as the latch becomes an indistinct dark shape in the middle of the tree image. Regarding all of these strictly as visual images, I find that they are two-dimensional.
Vision is not passive reception of an immutable tableau of colors and fixed distinct shapes, much less external material objects. I look at a potted geranium, focusing on the whole plant which consists of the leaves, stems and flowers. The most salient features of this image are the shape of the plant and the colors. Then I focus on one leaf, and I see its veins. These veins were not present in my image of the whole plant. In the image focused on the single leaf, the rest of the plant appears as a somewhat out-of-focus background for it. Moreover this image of a part is taken to be a perception of the part, with the whole object appearing indistinctly in the background of that image.
Seeing as an active process that literally defines its objects with specific acts of focused attention explains camouflage. I first see my defoliating columbine, then, looking closely at a particular leaf, I see the cabbage butterfly larvae whose color exactly matches the leaf. My view of the forest is by no means the collected views of each individual tree. A graphic illustration of the phenomenon I am discussing is the “duck-rabbit.” Looking squarely at it, I see an odd figure. Shifting my gaze more to the right, I see a rabbit facing right. Shifting it more to the left, I see a duck facing left.
An important aspect of all these examples is that seeing is always focused on some particular whole or part of an object which it defines and outlines, so to speak. I look at the table, focusing on the whole thing, or as much of it as is visible to me. I may look specifically at one of its parts such as the surface or a leg, but I am uncomfortable trying to focus on some random portion of it.
The way in which I have described how visual objects are distinguished as wholes or parts applies to the other senses as well. I focus my attention on some sound that I hear, for example, the music of a symphony. Or, I can focus specifically on the sound of particular instruments. In a noisy place I focus on the sound of someone’s speech and “tune out” in some degree background noise. With tastes I can focus alternately on the flavor of the apples, the cinnamon, the crust or the ice cream as I eat a pie á la mode. Wine-tasting is the art of discerning the various perceptible components of wine which include its smell. We also distinguish different smells when they occur in combination, most commonly when we seek the source of some particular smell. As I move my fingers around some object I can focus my attention specifically on different qualities such as heat, cold, smoothness, texture and shape.
The examples I have given so far involve images that are experienced simultaneously. All experience however has a temporal aspect, so my images are perceived in continuous whole acts of perception and in temporal segments. The walls of my room are perceived as remaining continually the same in my ongoing perception of them. A process such as beating eggs is perceived as a succession of parts of the process – cracking the eggs, seeing the whole eggs in the bowl, then the beaten eggs. All temporal experiences involve expectations. I expect the walls of my room to continue to appear the same but would be startled if there were an earthquake tremor and a crack suddenly appeared. Similarly, when I break an egg I expect to next see a normal egg not a green one, which would cause me to feel shock. The expectation of consistency in my experience reflects desire for it.
I have stated that where the objects of attention are perceived as simultaneously existing parts of wholes, the whole object is present in the perception of the part, but in the background and rather indistinctly. The present of experience is not an instant but an interval which recedes into the past and advances into the future. These fringes constitute the background of both whole continuous perceptions and parts of processes experienced as parts. Each focused perception, meanwhile, is also experienced as part of my total experience which includes my visual field plus the sounds, smells, feelings and tastes which I might be concurrently experiencing. Compared to the sensory object in focus, all the others are relatively indistinct.
Past experience plays a role in how I see things. After I first moved to a certain town, I walked down the main street, looking especially at each building individually. Having lived there for a while, I walked down it looking primarily at the streetscape rather than the individual buildings. Looking at a thing properly requires knowing what the thing is. Thus, when I initially saw a metal plate on the outside brick wall of my neighbor’s house, I struggled to get a good look at it, even though it was about a foot square and no more than ten feet away. It looked like a patch on the wall, but such a thing didn’t make sense. One day it lifted out and I saw that it was the cover for an exhaust fan. At that point I saw that it was not flat, but a shallow box with ridges and the manufacturer’s name embossed on it.
Visual objects therefore appear not only in spatial, but in temporal contexts. What I see is not brand new every time I open my eyes. I recognize kinds of things and individual objects, and my recognition consists in comfortably looking at them. Familiarity in fact breeds oblivion. When I see someone for the first time I notice their clothes. Who can say what they saw their spouse last wearing? I have described my expectation for consistency in present experience, but it also exists in non-sequential experience. I go to bed and wake up expecting to still find my body in bed, the room the same as it was last night and the rest of the world generally the same as in the past.
Constructing the Enduring Three-Dimensional World
In addition to seeing, I have tactile sensations associated with images of things in contact with my body. I also have sensations under the skin that I see. So my body is a three-dimensional extended space within and on the surface of which I have sensations.
While sight presents me with two-dimensional visual images, my combined visual and tactile images present a three-dimensional world. The sensations I feel in my hands as I move them around a ball, for instance, constitute the experience of a three-dimensional sphere. I have the sensations of my feet alternately pressing against a horizontal surface as I hold my body in a vertical position. This is the experience of my body walking about, and it is accompanied by changes in the images I see. So, for example, as I walk, I continuously see first one end of a table, a side, the other end, the other side then the first end. This is the visual experience of a solid, three-dimensional table. As I look at any ordinary scene, what I literally see are things like “the end of the table,” which is part of the total visual experience I would have of the table if my body moved all around it. That this is how visual experience works is demonstrated by trompe l’oeil.
The consistent recognition of visual images and their associated tactile sensations is the empirical ground for the belief in enduring solid objects existing outside my body and apart from my experience. I see the door, and I also feel its hardness as I see my hand pushing it open. The “material world” is a construct of ongoing sense experience. This experience is not static or a series of discrete instants, but rather a becoming making my experience of an enduring object a continuous whole. Starting from the time I walk into my room I have a continuous experience of the walls which ends when I leave the room. While I perceive the walls I expect the perception to continue. However if it is night and a light is on, I am jolted if the power suddenly goes off, bringing that experience to an unexpected abrupt end. The case is analogous with certain processes. Looking at a car passing by I see it as a continuous segment of a whole process – the car moving down the street.
The Five Senses
In the course of normal experience my attention is on visual images, so I don’t feel the contact of my body with the chair in which I sit. Nor do I feel the contact of the ground or floor on which I walk. I can watch as my feet move across a surface, but what I mostly see is change in my visual images. While sitting, I look down and see my upper legs in a horizontal position. Then I have certain sensations I correlate with the images of my legs as my body assumes a standing position. As I sat, I had seen the window across the room. Now the image of the window literally grows; I have an image of my arm reaching out, coming into visual contact with the window and I have a sensation of smooth hardness in my fingers.
My visual and tactile perceptions are coordinated, with the position of my body in visual space determining its perspectival quality. I see a mountain on the horizon. Holding up my hand, the image of it and the mountain appear about the same size. When I see my body at the base of the mountain, the image of latter is relatively much larger. The apparent navigation of my body around in my visual space is also such that my visual hand reaches out and grasps the pen, and my body avoids painful collisions with hard vertical surfaces.
I have auditory perceptions in an indefinitely extended auditory space outside my tactile body. I identify sources of sounds with visual images of, say, my alarm clock. Many sounds seem to fill my auditory space which I associate with my visual and tactile spaces. Birds singing, for example, seem to fill the sensory space of my yard.
While tastes are perceived inside my body, smells are also perceived in an indefinite olfactory space outside my body. I may hold a rose to my nose or smell the baking apple pie throughout the house. The apple pie seems to smell and taste about the same, and as I eat the pie, I feel it in my mouth.
My external perceptions have a consistency which makes them representative of an enduring and orderly world. However some of my perceptions are separate from the apparently external material world. I perceive my body lying down on my bed in my dark bedroom. Next my body seems to be back in my high school, where I am feeling anxiety because my homework isn’t done. Then I perceive my body in my bed and the room is filled with daylight. Dreams are a quasi-visual experience that are distinctive for being discontinuous with waking experience, always occurring in between experiences of lying in bed or some other sleeping position.
I can have the experience of memory images, in which I seem to project a different image into the visual space and its contents that I am presently and vividly seeing. I can also have images of imagination, which seem to be novel compositions of memory images. The principal difference between memory images and images of imagination is the ease with which the former appear and are held in the mind. Images of imagination are constructed, requiring effort to create and retain. Both memory images and images of imagination display a broad range of vividness and detail, with the two kinds actually merging into each other. So we can form images of generic objects, and recollection notoriously drifts into imagination. Unlike photographs with dates stamped on them, related memories can get mixed up.
Experience has a consistent pattern. Certain images persist and regularly reappear, so I consider them images of enduring material objects. Experience is also a continuous temporal process, always becoming new, and it entails the expectation that past patterns will persist. So I am comfortable that my room will remain the same over time. On the other hand, when I see the clock reading 5:59, I brace myself to hear the alarm at 6 am. Very unexpected experiences tend to barely register – a car crash, for example. I might be riding along, expecting to continue doing so, when the scenery suddenly stops moving, there is a big jolt and a crashing sound. It would take a few moments to readjust my senses to the new situation.
The images I refer to as “things” in the world display a variety of relations. Many of these are spatial relations. So I see the broken egg, focusing first on the whole egg, then on the yolk. I say that the yolk is inside the egg. I look at two people first together, then separately and say that one is beside the other. I see one person come into a room followed by another and I say that the second one entered later than the other. Again with the broken egg, I look first at the whole egg, then particularly at the yolk, finally particularly at the white and I say the white and the yolk are parts of the whole egg. If I put a pot of water on the stove and let it boil away, I see the cold, then boiling water and finally steam as stages in its vaporization.
Focused perception presents either invariability or change in their objects. As I focus on an image of a person the position of their legs and background may be seen as changing. This is the perception of the person walking. Or, I just see my surroundings changing, look down and see my legs moving. This is the experience of my own body walking. Observation of motion therefore is relative.
The moving thing I focus on continually is the subject, within which I distinguish attributes. I first see the person standing still, then they begin to walk. I can focus on the relative change in the position of their legs, that is, their act of walking, and this is an attribute of the person. I can also focus particularly on their color or their relative size. These are qualities of the image of the person, whom I take to be identical as I focus first on their whole body, then the motion of their legs, their color and size. As with my example of the distinct images of the whole geranium and its parts, images of attributes are taken to be such with the focus on a particular attribute and the rest of the object appearing indistinctly in the background in the image. All the attributes of objects of perception are distinguished in this way. Thus, I visually focus first on the color, then the shape, then the sheen of an apple. These several images of the attributes are separate from the image of the whole apple and present those attributes as literally somewhat different from how they appear in the image of the whole. In the images focused on a single attribute, the rest of the apple and the other attributes appear out of focus, in the background of the attribute in focus.
An important relation among perceptions is that of causality. I drop the egg on the floor and it breaks. I see this sequence every time I drop an egg, so I come to expect to see the egg break whenever I see one dropped. This is the basic model of the experience of cause and effect – repetition of the same sequence.
Erroneously Seeing, Hearing What I Expect
Experience accumulates and compounds, so images become instances of kinds. I come into a town for the first time. I’ve never seen it before, but I recognize it as a town, the houses and trees as these kinds of things. Very unusual objects evoke the same kind of puzzlement as the plate on the wall. For example, I once saw a strange thing under construction on a roadside in South Carolina. It looked rather like a water tower, but the tank was the wrong shape. The object being constructed was the Gaffney Peachoid – a water tower whose tank is shaped as and painted like a peach.
When I expect to see a certain image, I sometimes seem to see it, and then afterwards see the image of the thing I say is really there. Driving about on country roads in the dark, I’m looking for a sign directing me to Kutztown. I see a sign and read “Kutztown” and drive off in the wrong direction. Seeing the sign later in daylight I see “Mertztown” on it. Misreading is a very common form of seeing what I expect and not what is actually on the page. I can also similarly mis-hear spoken words.
The context of an image, that is, images in the visual or auditory space around the one in question and temporally preceding it, set up expectations that produce the misreading or mishearing. Context can also cause me to fail to recognize something familiar. For example, I always saw a certain woman in her office. Then, when I saw her at a ball game, I took her for a stranger, as in my experience her face was always associated with the surrounding images of her office.
An extremely important category of sense perceptions is that of language – the visual experience of written language and the auditory experience of language that is heard. One of the primary functions of language is to name objects and processes. Names are initially learned when I have the auditory experience of someone saying the name and, simultaneously having a visual image of someone pointing to an object. The name and the object become linked in my experience. Not only do I hear other people’s voices saying the name, I have the sensation of my own mouth moving and hear my own voice saying the it. In experience names and objects quickly become universalized: countless different voices are heard saying the same name and countless different individual objects are regarded as the same kind of thing with that name. Proper names are also heard as the same as they are spoken by different voices, and their objects are regarded as the same in countless different views, visual angles, lighting conditions and throughout changes over time.
I have spoken of images of imagination and memory, which seem to be nascent visual images that I attempt to project onto the actual visual scene before me. Much of what we call thinking is of this nature, largely consisting of images of imagination and memory as well as silent speech. When I say I talk to myself in my head, I am referring to something that is like the sound of myself speaking, except it is silent. I am not hearing a voice; neither is the experience in my ears or my brain. It’s in my mouth. Such verbal thinking is what Henri Bergson called “nascent speech” – subtle movements of the mouth which would become audible speech if they were augmented by the appropriate and more forceful movements of the mouth, throat and lungs.1
Either aloud or silently, when I have the visual image of something, I often spontaneously say its name. Sometimes I see something and the name doesn’t come spontaneously. For example, I see a person, and I don’t immediately remember their name, so I cast about for it in my mind. Sometimes I go through the alphabet, seeking the first letter of their name. Usually in this effort a name comes to mind, and I have a sense of fit between it and the face I am seeing. So I call the person that name. Sometimes I’m not fully comfortable with the match I have made, and the person tells me their name isn’t Bob but Bill. Or, I may tell someone a woman’s name is Mary, then some time later “Betty” will come to me and I will realize that is her correct name. I say it’s correct, because I have a strong sense of fit between the name and my memory image of the woman.
Just as I usually recognize and feel comfortable with the visual images of things I see but am puzzled or disturbed those that are out of the ordinary, so is the sense of consistency in my experience of language. When I hear speech in a language I know, I distinguish parts that I recognize. Audible speech is continuous like the continuous visual scene that is always before my eyes and from which I pick out individual objects. Speech that includes jargon that I don’t know can puzzle me as I fixate on the strange words. Highly ungrammatical speech also puts me at a loss. Speech in an unknown language is heard as a continuous stream of sounds in which I distinguish neither individual words nor sentences.
The primary units in linguistic communication are in not words but sentences, even incomplete ones. The experience of understanding a sentence consists in hearing or seeing it as a unit. When comprehension fails, I hear or see the sentence as disconnected words or groups of words. Grasping the meaning of larger linguistic objects such as paragraphs, even books, is likewise a matter of experiencing them as wholes which contain sentences or larger other units as parts. Single words are used in imperative sentences such as “Stop!” but otherwise sentences include multiple words, specifically subjects and predicates. Communication attributes something to an object, for example, “The apple is red.”
As there is a link between the visual image of a kind of thing and the name, so there are links between these images and sentences associated with them. Seeing a red apple, I am comfortable with the sentence, “The apple is red,” and uncomfortable with the sentence, “The apple is green.” Once a language is learned, normal correspondence between descriptions and images establishes truth and its absence falsity.
The grammar of language is correlated with how my acts of focusing define subjects and their attributes. I can focus on the image of the apple, say “apple” then focus specifically on its color and say “red.” Saying “the apple is red” establishes that the apple is the subject and red is an attribute. Similarly, I can attach any number of predicates to the subject “apple” such as “round,” “green,” “ripe,” “rotten,” and so forth. Other possible predicates include “is on the tree,” “was baked in a pie,” “was shipped from Washington state.” Meanwhile, the phrase “apples are round” is a generic statement correlated with a series of experiences of apples.
Part of the experience of language is the definition of words. In the case of common nouns definitions state the essential attributes of their objects, and these figure in my identification of images in my experience. Essential attributes may include a temporal element. So, for example, an apple is defined as a fruit that grows on a tree, and this is one of the ways in which it is distinguished from a tomato, which grows on a vine. A car is defined as a certain kind of moving object, thus a model of a car that didn’t move would not be a car. To correctly identify something as a car, I need to see it move. Taxonomy, or the naming of things and the definitions of those names, can be esoteric. Thus, organisms are ultimately defined by features of their DNA, and these are determined by laboratory observations.
In addition to essential ones there are unessential or accidental attributes. An apple with black blotches on it is essentially an apple accidentally afflicted by a fungal disease. I therefore call the thing an “apple with black spots,” and focus alternately on the apple and the spots.
Language can not only relate to actual experiences, but also appear to generate imaginary images. News and history represent present and past events, while fiction represents imaginary ones. Language is based on unambiguous sensory images, but it also represents many subtle, complex and abstract objects of sense and imagination. For example, in a mystery the murderer has a motive such as jealousy, revenge or avarice. There is no single sensory image of these mental states, so the author describes the actions of the perpetrator and the events in their life that collectively represent a person motivated by these emotions. Similarly, in accounts of actual events, writers explain the “aggression” of a country’s leaders by describing, for example, the Cuban missile build-up or “peacemaking” by describing truces, border adjustments and diplomatic discussions. The abstract words I have mentioned are correlated with not just a few veridical images of my own experience, but bodies of past and imaginary experience, much of which is itself linguistic.
Language in fact has a huge life of its own. Natural language involves rules of grammar and logic, the principal one among the latter being the law of non-contradiction. In addition, I have learned history, geography, science, current affairs and fiction. New linguistic experience is read or heard in light of past experience. If the new information fits with my past experience, it seems familiar like my experience of recognizing individual things and kinds of things. The new experience seems to become comfortably integrated with my past experience. If the new experience does not fit, I don’t comprehend it; I puzzle over it or reject it. So evolution apparently does not fit into the understanding of creationists: it doesn’t make sense to them, and they can’t accept it as true.
Thinking as well as education, consist in inserting new information into the body of one’s total experience. New language and images are admitted, so to speak, if they are not resisted. Children are fed all kinds of information which they readily swallow and digest to the extent that it is repeated to them and they repeat it back. Like the experience I described of moving to a new town – first focusing on individual buildings, then later the whole streetscape – new information tends to be received initially as separate pieces. Over time, these pieces seem to become integrated with each other and the rest of my understanding. I can create new understanding as well. Thinking about some matter, different words and images come to me in a process known as the association of ideas. The thought process is like finding the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and assembling them to form the complete picture. At first the final product is like the completed puzzle with the edges of all the pieces clearly visible. This is subsequently replaced with the experience of imaginary or linguistic contents that represent the picture as a seamless whole and integrated into my total experience.
Mathematics is a distinct part of language as a whole which is ultimately correlated with visual images. I look at a single person, focusing just on them and say, “One.” Then I focus on them and a person beside them together and say, “Two.” I go through the process of counting to ten touching each of my fingers in turn. I extend a tape measure from a person’s feet to the top of their head, look at the top number and say “Five feet eight inches.” This measurement defines the person’s height. Another person stands beside the first one and the tops of their heads are level, so I say “Their heights are equal.” Once the things I see are counted and measured, endless mathematical calculations can be performed with the numbers.
Measurement of things involves a whole realm of quantitative definitions. I hold an apple in my hand and feel a certain pressure. A scale gives the apple’s weight. Placing the apple on a triple-beam balance gives the value of its mass, which is defined as the quantity of matter in the apple. I can throw an apple and measure its velocity, defined as distance divided by time. Falling from a tree, its acceleration is defined by the time of the fall multiplied by 9.81 m/s². Science redefines everything in the world in terms of technical definitions based primarily on specialized measurements.
Science also asserts that the universe is governed by natural laws, which are the observed patterns reported by scientists and technicians. Ordinary people observe pressure in their hands and the weight of objects on scales, while scientists deal with qualities specially defined and observed. What is “force”? It is the quantity of mass times acceleration, which is conserved in the collisions of bodies. If I drop a brick on my toe I don’t perceive force, but rather a certain tactile sensation and pain. I watch a wrecking ball strike a building, and I say that the force of the swinging ball caused the building to collapse. So “force” is the name of the cause of the building’s collapse, a name I attach to my image which is literally only of the swinging ball striking the building. Science translates accounts of experiences in common language into its own scientific language.
I understand the world in terms of scientific explanations, much of which is without direct representation in my experience. While my body is experienced by me as so many internal and superficial sensations as well as visual and auditory images, the science of anatomy presents my body as consisting of so many parts that I do not see or never will see. If I am cut, I see blood running from the wound; otherwise I do not see my own blood, organs, cells and the rest. Anatomy for my experience is a picture of my body provided in books and in spoken language presumably derived from observations of other people.
According to neurophysiology experience itself is an affair of cells, light, chemicals and so forth that takes place inside the physical body depicted by anatomy, and especially inside my head, in my brain. I personally observe none of this. What I see is not my experience in my body, but my body in my experience. Indeed, no scientific investigator has ever gained access to my experience, or anyone else’s, and they certainly have never found it inside someone’s head.
Science therefore trades in phenomena that I never observe, and plenty of entities that it admits that no one ever has or ever will observe. These include other minds. Another such mystery object is the quantum, which is said to be an identical object that presents contradictory properties, depending on the means used to indirectly observe it. While I see plenty of fossils, no one claims to have seen a living dinosaur. In fact, geologic history is a scientific hypothesis, for who is to say that the universe didn’t come into being ten thousand years ago, even ten minutes ago, when all the fossils as well as my memories were suddenly created?
Science has a practical purpose, so the truth of the quantum, other minds, geologic history and so forth really have no impact on its applications. The hypothetical and even prescriptive aspect of science is especially critical when it affects public affairs. Thus, while climate history cannot be conclusively verified, present observations demand that the precautionary principle be applied. On the other hand, social Darwinism and neoliberal economic theory with its mythical God-almighty, supreme information-processing market are scientific models that are currently doing much harm in the world.
While the principal unit of language is the sentence, there are countless other kinds of linguistic units – titles, poems, articles, oral presentations, plays, dialogues, chapters, fiction and non-fiction books. These are experienced as units, just like other sensory objects. Obviously I can read just parts of written works or listen to just parts of spoken presentations, but I am aware of their incompleteness. The question and answer forms a notable pair or group of sentences. I ask someone a question, and I expect to hear them say an answer. “What time is it?” I ask, and they normally say such-and-such o’clock. If they don’t answer, my expectation is unfulfilled. Or, they may give an answer that doesn’t sound right to me. They say, “5 am,” but I say, “It’s broad day.” So I look at the clock, either see a different time on it or find that the clock has stopped.
This is the basic model of understanding verbal experience. I may be comfortable with what I hear, reject it as wrong or find it inadequate. What I expect is a complete answer or explanation. Much of the completeness of such objects is furnished by my past experience – the accumulation of verbal and non-verbal images plus a huge mass of past information. Some of this is consistent, and some is rather compartmentalized. For example, personal life is fairly separate from public affairs. Certain information may be experienced as conflicting with other information, giving me discomfort that is removed when a satisfactory resolution of the conflict is provided. The theory of evolution, for example, gives a completely natural explanation of how humans came to be and what they are. Creationism is a rival explanation which accounts for evil, something that doesn’t exist in the evolutionist’s world. Finally, evolution is all about the survival of the fittest, while the current progressive model makes cooperation the primary natural instinct. Which is right? Post-modernism would have that neither are, insisting that there are no ultimate answers, which leaves me still wondering.
I say that that I believe information that I can verify with my own senses and that provided by authorities that I accept. I don’t believe things because they are true; rather, I say they are true because I believe them. I therefore have a vast conception of the world that has been communicated to me through language. Much of this is supplemented with photographic images, which I believe are images that I would see if I were in the location in which they are or were taken and at the time they are or were taken.
Our understanding of the world is not so many immediate observations or reports of such observations. There is always some underlying narrative that casts bare facts in a certain light. As this narrative or “spin” is consistently applied, it reinforces the total picture of the world according to that narrative.
I have spoken of images that are confusing, which I am unable to comfortably see. There are also experiences of things, events and situations that I deem wrong. My accumulated experience thus imposes standards on present experience. A word is misspelled: “her’s” appears in place of “hers.” One driver cutting off another on the highway is seen as wrong, as I normally expect drivers to observe safe practices. I view the whole Trump political era is as a corruption of the American political tradition, although plenty of people appear delighted with it.
Perceptions are often accompanied by feelings which include immediate sensations and emotions. All of these may be classified as so many varieties of pleasure or pain, and these distinctions are the criteria for judging feelings to be good or bad.
I have the image of accidentally hitting my thumb with a hammer, and I feel pain in the thumb. I feel countless kinds of pain on the surface and inside my body, and they are all bad. There are also repellent tastes, odors and sounds which are bad as well. Meanwhile, there are all the well-known varieties of immediate sensory pleasure which we recognize as good.
In addition to these bodily perceptions, there is the whole host of more diffuse states known as emotions. I call these states various emotional colorings of sense experience, for they tend to saturate all the rest of the experience I am having at a particular time. The qualities of emotions are, like those of sense perception, immediate. That is, as red is the quality of a visual image, so joy or any other emotion is the quality of an emotional state. These things are objects of direct experience and cannot be explained apart from it. In discussing the emotions I take their quality as given and focus on the kinds of inner and outer perceptions ordinarily associated with them.
Thus, perceiving my body sitting in a cushioned chair, surrounded by images of the interior of my house, I feel comfortable. If I had an image of my home destroyed by a tornado, I would feel horrified and distraught. While my experience is private to me, meaning that I have only sensory images of the bodies of other people with no access to their perceptions or feelings, my image of a family by the remains of their home destroyed by a tornado is also accompanied by feelings of distress.
As my body is subject to painful feelings of hunger, cold and injury, so my images of people who are malnourished, without shelter from cold and rain as well as victims of injury are also accompanied by feelings of distress. If I experience someone acting rudely toward me, I feel offended and feel the same when I witness rudeness toward other people. If I perceive another person abusing me, I feel moral indignation and also if I observe abuse of other people.
Especially through media, my experience is loaded with images of death, destruction and injustice, and this does produce a degree of numbness. Still, there is a persistent sense that “the times are out of joint,” that something is radically wrong with the whole picture. While the things I have described are objects of distress for me, I perceive images of certain other people who appear either not distressed or pleased by such things. I observe that there is a breed of people who appear to take pleasure in knowing that police are murdering unarmed African Americans, young children are being seized from their parents at the border and countless civilians are being killed in war. These people are rightly called sadistic and immoral. Still, feelings occur in personal and historical contexts. We understand that some of the injustice and cruelty which are normally abhorrent today has historically been accepted. One need only look at the record of genocide of Native Americans, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and black slavery.
Six emotions that are prevalent today are fear, dread, anxiety, depression, anger, and hate. These are associated with specific other kinds of experiences. I may fear something specific or be in a generalized state of fear. Thus I specifically felt fear in connection with the thought that Trump would fill another Supreme Court seat and I generally felt fear when I thought about the actions of his administration and its support from Congress. Fear is of things that may or may not happen, while dread is felt in regard to certainties. So, I dreaded seeing the morning news reports of Trump’s latest actions. Anxiety is a generalized uncomfortable anticipation of painful experience. For example I felt anxious as I thought of the country moving toward authoritarianism. Depression is a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Anger is an attitude associated with images of a particular target or category of targets as well as the experience of strong speech and aggressive actions aimed at removing the offending actions or actors. Hate is a feeling of hostility correlated with images of particular persons or things and experiences aimed at removing them, at least from my experience. I feel hatred in connection with thoughts about several public figures and feel pain with visual or auditory images of them but not, however with the experience of reading printed information about them. I also hate television, will not have one in my house and feel pain whenever I am in a place where I experience one playing.
Another kind of painful emotion that appears widespread today is that of dashed hope. The feeling of hope is a sense of desire directed at an imaginary image of a future state of affairs while one also experiences the body acting to realize it. Thus I feel hope as I experience my body planting biennial flower seeds in pots in the spring, caring for them all summer and finally putting them in the ground in the fall, all the while imagining the beautiful flowers they will produce the following spring. Then I perceive them gone, with evidence that a groundhog has destroyed the lot. My feeling of hope is replaced by feelings of horror and intense disappointment, while my beautiful image is obliterated. This is a trivial example, but my experience is filled with representations of people suffering serious dashed hopes: college graduates with crushing student debt are underemployed; individuals and segments of entire generations suffer downward mobility.
Related to the emotion of dashed hope is dissatisfaction. This is the feeling that what I experience isn’t right. I have the experience of going to a fundraising dinner, eat a decent amount of the food and leave hungry. I observe the primary in a crucial midterm election being held with the turnout being only 12%. In these cases what appears wrong is not specific, such as the food tasting too salty or noting that a blizzard depressed turnout. I don’t analyze the situation, I just feel that it’s not right.
Another feeling of the times is frustration, which can be defined as repeated disappointment. I experience my body repeatedly cleaning the carpet, yet the appearance of dirt remains. I have the experience of persisting in asking people to do things; I hear them say they will but I then I often do not see them doing it. I have the experience of calling through a list of a hundred voters with only a couple picking up their phones.
Antipathy and alienation are other common contemporary feelings. As an activist, I have had the experience of being in situations where most, if not all, of the people in the room seem to be hostile toward me, and the feeling is mutual. Perceiving my body handing out Bernie flyers at a fair attended by a significant number of Trump supporters, I feel antipathy toward the crowd that I see. When I experience someone I call in a phonebank for a candidate aggressively complaining about me calling them, there is also antipathy. Alienation is the feeling that I don’t fit in, maybe in a social group, maybe in the world at this time. Walter Mosley captures the pervasive feeling of alienation among African Americans in the title of his book Life Out of Context.2
Other emotions that are all too common today are those of feeling disrespected and resentment. When I have the experience of speaking and being ignored, interrupted or dismissed, I also have the feeling of being disrespected. This emotion may be correlated with a projection of my feeling of hostility onto the people I view as causing my pain. In other words, I consider their conduct as intended to hurt me. Inequality of opportunity and wealth in a system of economic privilege appears to have generated widespread resentment by the unprivileged against the privileged. Indeed, in our neoliberal culture, the principal social relation is competition. In Babbitt Paul Riesling exposes the truth about competition: it’s goal is not to achieve something, but to defeat the opponent.3 So social relations tend to be fraught with antagonism, often consisting of subtle or overt bullying. Targets of offensive conduct apparently also feel indignation while defensive conduct is correlated with feelings of persecution and victimization.
Our system that revolves around competition promotes false hopes and rewards unfairness. Vast numbers of people are underemployed relative to their education and experience, and many people get ahead of others in virtue of inherited privilege and bootlicking. Those who lose out are seen to regard this as injustice, consider the system rigged, and consequently feel anger.
There is a large array of unpleasant emotions or attitudes which are reflected in bodily sensations. These include disgust, depression, resignation, powerlessness and despair, which are all correlated with reduced mental and physical activity. Pity is pain that I feel as I perceive someone else’s suffering. Self-pity is the painful condition of dwelling on my own misfortune. In our time confusion and the feeling of being overwhelmed by events and information are common. The response to these feelings can be escapism – blocking on the experiences linked to negative feelings.
Lack of experience related to the world is commonly associated with boredom, while blocking on certain parts of it may be correlated with indifference, apathy and thoughtlessness. Perceiving the evidence of these attitudes in other people involves painful feelings for me. Pervasive hostility and indifference is seen as correlated with loneliness, isolation and balkanization of people. The effort to avoid antagonism, meanwhile, appears to be linked with groupthink and tribalism.
In contrast with this range of bad feelings and emotions, numerous others are recognized as good. Pleasure is generally considered good, but it is also judged in context. Thus while enjoying food and drink is good, the sequence of overindulging, then feeling pain afterwards is considered bad.
The absence of bodily pain is well-being, which is not a feeling. However, positive attitudes such as cheerfulness, hopefulness, joie de vivre and simple comfort may be counted as emotions as they color sense perception. In these states of mind I experience enjoyment of particular things such as ordinary food, the scenery and other people’s company.
There is an array of pleasant feelings or states of mind associated with perceiving my body in the company of other people. These include affection, conviviality, camaraderie and solidarity. Friendliness is a feeling of warmth among people, and neighborliness is the same feeling between neighbors. These last two are accompanied by perception of relevant actions, as are the rest of the positive social emotions which include kindness, graciousness, charity, gratitude and respect.
Love refers to two distinct emotions. A feeling of love for a lover, spouse, parents and children is a certain pleasure associated with the experience of my body coexisting with the beloved. There can be feelings of love for a pet, a place or an inanimate thing as well. Love is also desire, which is a pleasant feeling accompanying the experience of an initial or intermediate part of a kind of continuous process that reaches some kind of satisfying or pleasurable fulfillment. In such cases I say that I “desire” the outcome of the process that I expect. Thus, when I desire some coffee, I perceive my body performing the actions of making it. My expectations are not always fulfilled, and when this happens, I feel some degree of pain in the form of shock, disappointment, grief and so on.
I have mentioned pleasures such as enjoying food and drink that, in excess, lead to pain. Excessive love of food and drink are gluttony and intemperance, which are bad forms of love. Excess in fact renders all forms of love bad. Greed or excessive love of material wealth, indeed all obsessive loves, are accompanied by pain, or at least loss of other kinds of pleasure. Sadism is such a bad form of pleasure that it must be deemed pathological.
Caring is a blend of the two forms of love, and it is consistently correlated with perceptions of my body acting in certain ways. The desire involved in caring is the desire to perceive the object cared for in a state of well-being. Caring for my family means that I desire to experience them as healthy and comfortable and entails perceiving certain actions of my body. These include providing good food for them and making repairs to the house when they are needed. My desire to experience the well-being of my family and house is fulfilled when I perceive my body performing these actions and the positive effects of good nutrition and home maintenance. I can say I care about my family, but seeing my body feeding them junk food and the effects of such a diet can’t properly be called caring. Such “caring” may be a warm feeling, but is otherwise neglect. Weak or strong, the pleasant feeling of caring accompanies the experience of myself performing caring actions.
Feelings may be mixed and caring often is. If I perceive that someone I care for is in danger, I fear that they may be injured. So if I hear or read of some disaster in which they might have been a victim, I feel fear as I perceive my body proceeding to make contact to determine their condition. The experience of going to unusual lengths, even putting the body at risk to protect or save someone or something raises caring to the level of courage. As Eddie Rickenbacker said, “There can be no courage unless you are scared.” Self-sacrifice on a lesser scale for an object of care is nobility.
There are many varieties of caring defined in terms of their objects and duration. These include loyalty and patriotism. Caring to abide by the truth and laws is integrity. Self-care can refer to actions for maintaining the health of the body or one’s life record, which is one’s character. Caring for one’s character involves the experience of the body practicing of the classic virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance and justice and feeling the consequent moral satisfaction which outweighs the negative feelings related to the inevitable consequent bad treatment by other people.
Self-respect is a good emotion that, taken to an extreme is egotism, which is bad. As practicing the virtues is good, so grandiosity is bad. High-mindedness, which resists the bad emotions, maximizes the good. This attitude and pattern of behavior stresses courtesy and includes painful contrition when apology must be made.
My discussion of love and desire has highlighted the forms that are most familiar and vivid. Experience, meanwhile, is filled with more subtle forms. Determination can be described as a keen desire to perceive my body achieving a certain goal. I want to win the game, that is, I want to see my team as the winner, and I experience bodily activity to that end. I experience my body speaking with the intention of subsequently hearing a certain response from my listener. Again, I desire that outcome, and the actions of my body correspond to that intent. As I have stated, expecting to see something is also a desire to see it, and normal experience is filled with expectations of what comes next. If I suddenly fail to see what I expect, I feel stunned or shocked. Such failure may also be more mild. Thus, I expect to see darkness at night, and I would be disturbed if I didn’t, as would be the case if I were in the very far north in summertime.
I give the unease that I feel when my expectation fails the general name of “dissonance,” which I define as a combination of the word’s two standard definitions. The latter are: 1. a lack of agreement and 2. a mingling of sounds that strike the ear harshly. My definition is “a lack of agreement that is experienced as discomfort.”
As I desire certain experiences, so I am averse to their non-occurrence. Losing the game is painful; a “no” answer is disappointing when I sought a “yes,” and I feel uneasy when I do not see the sun go down at night. We are presently witnessing mass disappointment. Millions of people have believed that if they worked hard and played by the rules they would be rewarded with a secure middle-class life. Yet their hopes have been dashed. They appear both full of resentment and, like the Cargo Cult, to cling to faith in a magical deliverance.
It is obviously possible to adjust to failed expectations. I can become accustomed to experiences such as the midnight sun. Indeed, as my experience of moving to a new town shows, the newness of experiences wears away and they become normalized. Unfortunately at present the world is at risk of many initially outrageous things becoming normalized and ceasing to disturb people.
Desire is expectation for which a certain kind of subsequent experience represents fulfillment. Desire and fulfillment therefore form a single continuous experience. If the whole experience is completed, there is some positive feeling, at least of a fulfilled expectation. The whole experience may not achieve the desired completion as it may be interrupted by some unexpected experience or it may simply fail. A game may be interrupted by a rainstorm, or one’s team may just lose. The nonfulfillment of desire is experienced as shock, disappointment or unease. Of course there are pleasant surprises in which the shock is quickly succeeded by some pleasure at an unexpected turn of events. The shock may actually be pleasant. So, in seeing a game which has a last-minute reversal, there is an initial desire to win. However as it is about to end, resignation to loss sets in. Then, when the final points are scored, the feeling of loss is suddenly replaced by an especially intense positive feeling of triumph.
This last illustration involves expectation of some painful experience. Such expectations are accompanied by the emotions of fear, dread or anxiety that I have described above. So they are actually mixed insofar as they involve a desire for a predictable process to reach its usual fulfillment, which happens to be painful. Thus, I dread how I will feel when I go outside in a heavy snow storm, but I also expect this experience to be consistent with my past experience in such conditions.
As the focus of my gaze defines what the enduring objects of my experience are, so my expectations define the processes that I experience. The feeling of desire is pleasant, and hope springs eternal, so life is full of more and less realistic expectations. These are more and less realistic interpretations of events which are often accompanied by imaginary images of the fulfilled hope. I have stated that experience doesn’t present a material world with an unequivocal nature, and the range of such interpretations infused with desires is further confirmation of this. Still, one usually gets “reality checks” on their wishes and expectations. There may, however be delusion of varying degrees, extreme examples being Trump consistently spinning his defeats as wins.
There is obviously order in the world that I experience, and this represents the general fulfillment of my expectations for it, which is my desire for my experience to be orderly, consistent and harmonious. When this desire is fulfilled I feel some degree of pleasure which, at a minimum, is satisfaction. Conversely, the nonfulfillment of this desire is accompanied by some degree of pain, the least forms of which are dissatisfaction and unease. While the fulfillment of an expectation can be painful, and the state of expectation is a state of fear or dread, it still involves a desire for order in experience. In practice, fear is typically mixed with an overriding desire or hope that one’s actions will overcome the threat.
Good and Bad Perceptions
Given that for experience pleasure and pain are the standards for good and bad respectively, these judgments may be extended to the rest of the kinds of experience. I have mentioned the desire to have the perceptions of people and things which are associated with my feelings of love and caring to be perceptions of them in good condition. As such perceptions are accompanied by feelings of pleasure, they are good perceptions. Earlier I spoke about recognizing images as being of specific things and unfamiliar or impaired images. A good experience of something is one in which there is comprehension, by which I mean an immediate and clear grasp of what the thing is. In a blizzard I can’t distinguish different things, so my images of the road, the street sign and so forth are bad. My experience of the blizzard, meanwhile is excellent. I also have a bad experience of some strange object: I don’t know how to look at it, as illustrated by my seeing the exhaust fan cover. I further expect what I see to be consistent. My husband has always worn a beard except for one time when he shaved it off for a photograph. His suddenly appearing without a beard gave me a turn.
The expectations I have for images are reflected in basic language. I have particular expectations for particular things and those named by proper nouns, while I have generic expectations for those things in my experience named by common nouns. My expectations are of experiences with all my senses. So, I see a man I have never met; to me he is just a man. When he opens his mouth to speak, I expect to hear a normal human voice. However, it sounds electronic! This initially shocks me, but I quickly realize that he has an artificial larynx.
So a good experience of something is an experience that fulfills my expectation for the experience. My generic image of a house, for example, conforms to the definition of a house: a structure with four walls, a roof, windows and door used as a human dwelling. Images that meet this definition are good experiences of houses. An image of a house with the roof blown off, or one gutted by fire are bad experiences of houses. If I am invited to a home and expect to find a house, but see instead a castle or a tent, I am taken aback. The images of the castle or the tent are bad experiences of a house, so I replace my expectation of seeing a house with one that matches what I now see.
I am not satisfied with the image of the house with the roof blown off or the one gutted by fire. I have a desire to see them repaired or replaced. Repeated experience, as I have stated, renders things more acceptable to sense. So, if I have repeatedly seen a roofless house, I am surprised when after a considerable time I see it with a new roof. Still, all my experiences of the roofless house were bad experiences of a house. Things have multiple identities and can be seen in different lights. If I were a roofer, the sight of the roofless house would be delightful, as I would see it as an opportunity for a roofing job.
These last examples illustrate the aspect of caring in experience. I want to see proper houses, not ruined ones, and if my business is to repair them, I want to experience myself restoring them. So, when I walk into my garden I expect to see all the plants thriving, or at least as much as they were the last time I looked. If I now see the tall flowers blown down by a wind storm, I am disturbed and perceive my body promptly fetching stakes and setting them upright. At this point I feel satisfaction not only with the appearance of the flowers, but also with that of my body’s successful work to restore them.
It is quite otherwise when I suddenly find my grapevines covered with nymphs of the exotic and invasive spotted lantern fly, against which there is no known safe and immediately lethal defense. I feel despair, but experience my body going out to buy a large supply of neem, which is a safe but slow-acting killer of the flies. Feeling optimism, I perceive my body start to spray, but after several days, I still see plenty of them. My optimism fades, as feelings of fear and despair arise. I perceive my body continuing to spray, feeling hope to still eradicate the pests, which, at a later stage in their life cycle threaten to kill most of the trees in my yard and whose species threatens to kill many kinds of trees and vines in a large area of my state.
My position with the lantern flies is a microcosm of the overall situation with good and bad experience. The sight of damaged grapevines or vines coated with lethal pests are bad perceptions of grapevines. On the other hand, vines and other plants with pollinators on and around them are good perceptions. Perception of a forest that has suffered extensive emerald ash borer damage is a bad experience of a forest, although it is a good perception of such insect damage. My experience of seeing the infested grapevines is additionally painful because seeing my garden is a considerable source of pleasure for me. Now my image is somewhat spoiled. Another important aspect of this matter is my past twenty-five years of experiencing my body working to make my garden the attractive sight that it is. The flies somewhat dash decades of expecting to see reward for my body’s effort in it. Enjoying my garden has become an important part of my life, my experience. Now my life and my experience are under attack and I feel violated.
If the spraying is perceived as successful, I will feel pleasure, indeed somewhat heroic, for seeing my body overcome the attack. However, my enjoyment is threatened and destroyed on an ever-growing scale. I drive into the country, and I see many trees damaged by the flies. I dread taking my usual hike on the Appalachian Trail, where so many trees have already been killed by emerald ash borers and the lantern flies are moving in.
So as I perceive my body try to kill them and defend my yard from being damaged by them, there are many other attacks on my enjoyment that I feel powerless or nearly powerless to resist. Most of these attacks ultimately consist of human activity. For example, at times it is unusually hot and dry; I’m uncomfortable; I see my garden stressed; a drought emergency has been declared and nonessential water use is banned. The tick population is seen as higher than normal because the winter was mild. My body can’t do much outside and it must avoid deer habitats that contain deer ticks. These are the immediate ways in which climate change is affecting me. My body acts to conserve energy and support climate action, but I witness the current government flagrantly escalating the climate crisis.
I have previously discussed perceiving whole objects and their parts. A geranium plant, for example, consists of three visible parts (the roots are buried in the soil and therefore not seen). The parts are the stems, the leaves and the flowers. Looking at the geranium as a whole, I see all the parts and their colors, with the outline of the whole plant being most distinct. If it’s in good condition, I have a good perception of the plant. When I focus on a particular leaf as a part of the whole plant I see its colors (mostly green with dark veins), and what is most distinct is the outline of the leaf. This is also a good perception of a leaf. If I look individually at the parts and find them good, I have good perceptions of both the whole and the parts of the plant. If a few of the leaves are yellow, they are bad, and the whole is no longer entirely good. If most of the leaves are yellow, then the plant is in bad condition, that is, the whole is bad.
Something that I can see as a whole has a perceptual unity. I see a nursery shelf of geraniums as a whole and also a yard with some geraniums in it. A geranium in a vase on a table does not constitute a whole, but dishes, silverware and centerpiece are a whole table setting. A yard that is a masterpiece of landscape architecture is beautiful, and so is an artistic table setting. The different parts of these images harmonize to give the whole a special unity. Looking at the whole yard, I feel aesthetic pleasure, which I don’t feel if I look at a particular geranium in the yard, or any other particular thing in it. The beauty is in the whole composition, as in a work of art each portion is indivisible with the whole. Thus, the beauty of Mona Lisa’s face is conditioned by the appearance of her body and the background in the painting.
I have concentrated on visual experience and beautiful visual images, but what I have said also applies to experiences with the other senses. Music is beautiful sounds, and a composition is an aesthetic temporal unity. I have mentioned the case of the combined qualities of wine, and cuisine aims to create pleasing combinations of food, from the simple sandwich to the gourmet meal. The taste of food and drink lingers and combines with subsequent flavors that are tasted. Some apparently simple smells are considered beautiful, for example, the fragrance of a rose. Aesthetic combinations of smells are more associated with cooking, for example, the smell of the apple pie, and perfumes. Bodily sensations that are judged to be aesthetic include the dancer’s experience of dancing.
Objects arouse aesthetic pleasure not only in virtue of their unity and harmonization of elements. They must also have some degree of complexity. A solid white canvas certainly has unity, but could only be counted as art if it were making a statement such as, “This is anti-art.” In this case its context in space (such as an exhibition) or in the experience of the viewers supplies the complex material to be harmonized in the viewers’ experience of the painting. Otherwise the harmonized substance is principally in the work. This goes for visual and auditory art. Among works of art we distinguish between the simple, complex and baroque. The art of Lascaux and the Sistine Chapel are both beautiful, as are both folk music and symphonies.
Cultural context is part of the experience of art. Much historical and prehistoric art has religious significance. This includes temples, shrines, icons, idols and sacred music. Religious rituals may include singing and dancing by all the participants. Religious art requires the viewer to recognize who and what is represented, and literature contains references to historical events, characters and culture. Much of the appeal of rituals is precisely their ritual nature.
On the other hand, variety and novelty play a role in aesthetic experience. Art is always special, a break from the mundane, whether the experience is regular, like attending service in a magnificent cathedral, or unique, like viewing the King Tut exhibition. Seeing original Mona Lisas everywhere would destroy their magic. Even fantastic houses and gardens are intended more to impress outsiders than the residents, who may continue to enjoy their homes but no longer have the particular aesthetic experience felt by visitors.
Art is the model for aesthetic experience, but there is also immense natural beauty, figuratively attributed to divine artistry. Natural beauty possesses the attributes of the artistic kind, that is, harmony, complexity and rarity. In addition, intense experience of natural beauty includes the sense of wonder. Experiences of living organisms feature remarkable unity, with whole ones always perceived as wholes and their parts as parts. This contrasts with experience of nonliving objects or artifacts. I can look at a pile of rocks or one rock separately, a brick wall or a single brick. This is also true for organic communities formed by schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of mammals and intact ecosystems. Organic parts can only be perceived as separate and distinct insofar as they are viewed in some other respect. Examples are a tree branch viewed as a prong on which to hang a bird feeder or as the support for a bird’s nest. In our world of mostly disturbed nature and man-made objects, the organic unity in experiences of natural objects increasingly provides aesthetic pleasure. Conversely its absence arouses degrees of discomfort, even grief, which may figure in feelings of fear of natural destruction.
Aesthetic experience can engage multiple senses. Dining always involves taste, smell and the feel of the food and drink in the mouth and throat. I also hear my teeth crunching crisp foods. The presentation of the food, the table and the place can be beautiful as well. There can be beautiful music, beautifully dressed guests, dancing and beautiful speech. Wedding parties aim to combine all of these to make for totally beautiful weddings. A play consists of an aesthetic combination of scenery, costumes, acting, dialogue and possibly music.
Literature is aesthetic composition with words which may be read or spoken. In addition to their aesthetic aspect, literary works have meanings. They often present a particular story or sequence of particular images that communicate a certain general sense to the reader. Through the story of Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment conveys the message that conscience compels confession and atonement. The reader enters, so to speak, this message in their file of experience, cast in the character and plot of the novel. That filed experience illuminates subsequent experience of people who are judged to act guilty of some offense. From the novel the reader has learned that guilty people tend to feel uncomfortable about their action and have an urge to be absolved of it. This knowledge is manifested not as memory images of the novel nor recital of the lesson, but as an attitude or belief in the guilt of a particular person before them.
The representations made in literature are not necessary and universal, so I can’t assume that the person in front of me is driven by the same impulses as Raskolnikov. The novel is fiction, not factual history, much less science. I have previously raised the matter of information expressed in language and I shall now distinguish the good and bad forms of it.
If someone speaks to me in a language I don’t know, this is a bad experience of language. Likewise, if I pick up a newspaper, and it is in some language I don’t know, this is also a bad experience. Even overhearing people speak in an unknown language is a bad experience for me because understanding is essential to the experience of language.
Obviously if the volume is too low or background noise is too high, I won’t properly hear and understand speech. Similarly with written language, if the ink has run or it is too faint, my experience is bad. A person can express themselves poorly, so I don’t understand what they are getting at, or they can use unknown jargon, make unfamiliar allusions, and so forth. They can also have a foreign accent which makes their speech hard to understand. In all of these cases, understanding fails because of some issue with my hearing or reading it. As I have previously explained, some speech or writing may be perceived perfectly but not understood. It is experienced as so many disconnected words or phrases rather than a whole sentence, paragraph or larger unit, making it a bad experience of such a unit.
Otherwise, I can sometimes hear or read language perfectly well, but still have a bad experience. If I see a red apple and hear “the apple is green,” this is a bad experience of that statement: it doesn’t match my visual experience. On a more complex level, I may perceive my body as the victim of a car accident and perceive it describing the experience one way, and the guilty driver describing it very differently. My experience of his description is bad because it doesn’t match my recollection. Conflicting interpretations of people’s shared experiences are well known.
The matter moves to another level in the absence of eyewitnesses. So, I read that Trump said that Canadians burned the White House in the War of 1812. This is a bad experience, because for much of my life the information I have held is that it was the British who burned the White House in that war. I count my information as a fact reported in my grade school textbook. As with the message of Crime and Punishment, I don’t recall the image of the text or even recite the fact: it surfaces solely in the dissonance I feel with Trump’s statement.
Language figures enormously in my experience as today, life is dominated by information. The critical experience is understanding, which combines present and past direct sensory experience of things, events and information. The experience of understanding is good if the present direct experience or information is accompanied by a feeling of comfort or pleasure. That is, it is good if it fits with my present and past experience. There is also the “aha” experience, in which a new connection is made. New insight can further come as a revelation that reconfigures past understanding, bringing a profound sense of harmony to one’s experience of some matter.
Conversely, such experiences are bad if I feel dissonance. The opposite of the “aha” experience is cognitive dissonance, in which new information is experienced as so alien, indeed threatening to established understanding, that it strengthens belief in the latter. An extremely bad experience of understanding is shattered illusion in which new experience destroys the fit or harmony within significant portions of past experience. This can leave people feeling themselves shattered, or they can be left simply disillusioned. Alternatively, they can experience conversion with the kind of revelation I described above.
As I have new experiences of understanding, I feel either comfort or dissonance because my whole experience reflects a desire for coherence, indeed produces coherence as it actively organizes its contents. Coherence is fit and minimal harmonization of components, yet there is evidently also desire for coherence of an aesthetic order. All of my past experience bears on new experience at every moment, as my total experience snowballs over time. It is an organic unity in which organic parts may be identified.
Like books and topics, my understanding consists of so many parts that together make the whole of my understanding. A total good understanding is one in which both all the parts and the whole are good. These parts include all of my direct sensory experience and the information related to them.
I have already described the most basic level of good experience. These include proper naming, as in “this is an apple” while I see an apple as opposed to “this is an orange.” It also includes distinct perception such as in broad daylight, not a blizzard. Beyond this is good experience of the attributes and relations of things correlated with statements such as “the apple is red,” and “the apple is growing on the tree.”
There is then information representing things that I don’t directly experience, which is generally the substance of basic education – geography, history and science. I can’t verify any of this information with my own direct experience. Indeed, apart from eyewitness reporting of current events, historians rely on records. For me, therefore, good understanding of such information is understanding based on good records, ideally created by eyewitnesses.
So the material of good understanding counts, as far as possible, as factually true as opposed to false. It is also coherent. Geography doesn’t describe so many places in isolation. Rather, the discipline presents a total picture of the earth. Similarly, history and science strive to present total pictures of human events and nature. The latter disciplines are not themselves totally consistent, and my own experience of them is limited and fragmented. Good understanding for me of historical and scientific matters could certainly not be complete, but it must be, as far as possible, consistent.
Past experience generates the expectation that the present and the future will be like the past, so this is the value of good understanding. The purpose of science is control, so its application directs action with predictable outcomes. Accurate historical understanding has the same value. If tax cuts for the rich have historically failed to lift the 99%, the rational expectation is that repeating the move will have the same effect. Much science is actually ongoing experiments, for example, pharmaceutical science and genetic engineering. Social science cannot experimentally verify its theories, so it remains so many models imposed on its human subjects. These models assert without proof that certain patterns exist now and will remain in the future. Significantly, social scientists are always hatching out new models or at least tweaks to their conventional wisdom. Events sometimes conclusively falsify theories, the most notable example being the demolition of neoliberal economic theory by the 2008 financial crisis. The experts claimed that the God-almighty market could never fail, but it did. Philip Mirowski has called the subsequent exoneration of neoliberalism an instance of “agnotology” – fraudulent science.4 Climate change denial is a prominent example of agnotology. It conflicts with empirical evidence, but it is being disseminated as propaganda. Apart from bare records and eyewitness experience, history is written from a point of view, and even one’s personal experience usually involves some spin. A glaring example of current interest is the history of the settlers and Native Americans. The genocide and expropriation have been buried. This situation illustrates the understanding of past conflicts driving, so to speak, present experience. What should be done? Restore all tribal territories? Honor treaties to keep out pipelines?
The Total Good Experience
My consideration of the experience of understanding reveals its total character, which is part of the totality of experience. As particular experiences are parts of the total experience, so the particular desires that they be good experiences are parts of the total desire for a total good experience. This total good experience includes total good understanding that satisfies the requirements of factual evidence and consistency. It further consists of good perceptions of individual objects as wholes and as parts of wholes. We are alert to propaganda, but overall, understanding of the world displays a decent degree of agreement with facts and consistency. Still, the world we see is increasingly a wreck. Good information isn’t enough, although far too many people limit their involvement in world affairs to being “well-informed.” Good experience of the whole world is essential to the total good experience.
There is inherent in my experience the desire to have good experiences of things, and this largely means things in good condition. I am comfortable, even feel pleasure at the sight of things in good condition and disturbed by the sight of things in bad condition. So the elements of the good perceptions that are parts of the total good experience are individual things in good condition.
Everything is ultimately seen or understood to be a part of multiple wholes in multiple spatial, temporal and logical dimensions. For example, I understand my body to be simultaneously part of the contents of my house, a figure in human history, a citizen of the U.S. and to have a countless number of different identities. The other things in my experience likewise have multiple identities as parts and wholes, and they are all experienced as good in the total good experience.
I now proceed to describe the total good experience which represents the fulfillment of my real inherent desire for it. I am not constructing a fantasy, but the ideal, that is, the goal to experience my body striving toward.
The total good experience obviously includes an abundance of good feelings and excludes or at least minimizes bad feelings. Aesthetic pleasure, especially enjoyment of natural beauty, figures among such good feelings, while its opposite, repugnance, is among the bad. Meanwhile, its principal components are perceptions of things in good condition, starting with my own body. In it I also perceive other people’s bodies in good condition – intact, healthy and functioning. Other people are thus perceived as having good nutrition, living in healthy conditions and leading healthy, productive lives. They are also properly educated. Humans are mortal, so they all eventually die and are subject to injury and disease. In my total good experience, life and death are dignified, while disease, injury and suffering are minimized. War, murder and all other kinds of criminal acts are absent from it.
I have good perceptions of every other kind of positive thing which include natural objects – plants, animals, geologic features. I also have good perceptions of man-made objects – homes, farms, workplaces, instruments, conveyances, leisure objects and all else that makes for healthy and fulfilling human life.
In the total good experience I perceive individuals as parts of whole families. In our time what constitutes a family is more varied than in the past. There are gay spouses, unmarried partners and blended families which are all now counted at least as households. Although its composition is now more diverse, the function of the family is unchanged: it is the primary unit of human affection and care giving. A good family is one which fulfills this function, and good family members are parts of good families. Family life is centered in the home, so another aspect of it caring for the dwelling – keeping it safe and comfortable. I perceive my body as an individual human being, so, in addition to observing other people functioning as good parts of good families, in my total good experience I perceive myself functioning as a good part of my own good family.
Families are parts of the next order of social whole, the community. Villages, small towns and city neighborhoods are no longer social units, and this is a major factor in the general alienation of our time. The current experience of my community is bad. People don’t know each other and don’t even want contact with one another. Consumer needs are met mostly by giant corporate outlets, usually located miles out of town. Then there is internet commerce, in which there is no human contact at all. The primary thing that people share in this bad community is the geographic place in which their homes are located and where they spend some amount of time, mostly in their own houses and on their own properties.
A good community is a whole of which the individual people and families are parts, and, as far as possible, meet their needs as interdependent social beings. Human survival is a collective endeavor, so, again, as far as possible, basic needs are satisfied by and within the community. It further includes division of labor with everyone performing meaningful and satisfying work. The community is like an expanded family in that all the members serve one another in a spirit of goodwill.
An extremely important aspect of the good community is its governance. For the community is also a geographic place with its own resources. It has neighbors on its borders and shares the earth with all other communities. Things come into and pass out of the community, carried by wind, waters and means of transportation. The community generates waste: sewage, garbage and atmospheric emissions. In a good community the people engage in governance to keep it safe and comfortable. As with the family, my total good experience includes good perceptions of all community members functioning as participants in the economic, social and political activities of a good community, which is to say, as citizens of it.
Multiple communities share larger geographic spaces, ultimately the earth, and they are connected. So keeping each community safe and comfortable involves interaction with people inhabiting other communities. Each individual, family and community has a stake in this interaction, and this unites them into larger geographic and political units – states and nations. My total good experience therefore includes experience of my state and nation functioning to keep myself, my family, my community and everyone else safe and comfortable. As with the community, the governance is by and for the people, and I perceive myself participating in these governing activities which I share with all other constituents as citizens of the higher jurisdictions.
The most comprehensive social whole of which my body is a part is humanity or the global human community. Nations perform both internal and external functions, so serving the global community is a part of national governance. My good total experience further includes experience of the well-being and engagement of people everywhere on the earth specifically as citizens of their communities, nations and the world.
The ultimate whole of which my body forms a part is nature, so the total good experience contains good perceptions of the parts and wholes of natural objects. Wholes of which natural objects are parts include populations of species in their habitats. Good perceptions of these are perceptions of intact ecosystems. Nearly every natural setting that I presently see has been disturbed, so it is a collection of natural objects which often includes exotic and invasive species. In any case it is not a unity. Much of my experience of nature as a whole further consists of information, so the total good experience includes information to the effect that all natural objects, parts and wholes alike, are in good condition.
Humans are a part of nature, so this good experience includes awareness that humans are functioning in harmony with the rest of nature. This goes for individual and collective human action. Starting with my own body, I experience it as acting in an environmentally sound manner; I see other people doing the same, and my community governing accordingly. Each successive level of geopolitical organization is understood to operate in a corresponding manner.
I have demonstrated that the desire for good experience is inherent in experience. I want to see, hear, feel, taste, smell and understand good things consistently. The total good experience that I have just described is the object of all my desires together – the total object of my desire. Paramount in this total good experience is harmony between earlier and later experiences, between the parts and wholes of things and between items of understanding. The ancient Pythagoreans identified the harmony between things as justice – the justice between the parts of a healthy body, the justice between the notes of the musical scale, the justice between the citizens of a state.5 Looking at my personal experience, current events and history I can confidently say that, overall, nothing is more offensive to people than injustice and nothing motivates people to act more than desire for justice.
The final piece of the total good experience is total good understanding of experience. As I have stated, the total good experience is the ideal to which desire in experience aspires. Being the ideal, its attainment may be limited, though the desire for perfection persists. So one finds degrees of perfection in actual experience. My account of experience provides a good understanding of it with a high degree of perfection insofar as it develops a complete understanding based on the self-evident truth of immediate experience through a perfectly logical process of reasoning. In this it displays a very high degree of harmony among its parts and the total universe of human understanding. Furthermore, it satisfies the wish for special aesthetic harmony in experience insofar as it provides revelation of an aesthetic and morally satisfying new world view.
At this point I must repeat that spoken language is sounds, and written language is figures on a page or screen. As the meaning of language is more language that explains the first language, sense is nothing other than the coherence of language and non-linguistic experience, in other words, the harmony between them. Beethoven captured this truth in his statement “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
The total good experience is the fulfillment of my total desire, and my actual imperfect experience is aimed at achieving it. My realistic total good experience must be an historical process in which I experience my body and the world moving toward total perfection. In this process I enjoy the pleasure of good total understanding and moral satisfaction with the perception of my body’s activity, especially when my intentions are fulfilled.
My present experience is of my body subject to the human condition at this historical moment. Attainment of my perfect total experience involves a sequence of perceptions of other people joining me to bring about extraordinary change in the world. My wish to see this is radical, as I view other people as mostly in the grip of propaganda, consumer culture and groupthink. They appear to pursue sensory gratification and believe in TINA (there is no alternative). I, however, believe that the current direction of history is disastrous and that it can change. Unless it changes, I expect profound climate disruption, “the end of nature,” major loss of clean fresh water, massive human migration and much more conflict. Prominent progressive thinkers insist that decentralization, environmental stewardship and human cooperation such as that outlined in my total good experience are necessary to avert catastrophe. To block on bold expectations for human action as well as the current widespread destruction and damage is to reduce experience, moral desire – one’s very life – in favor of brute survival which, as it is progressively endangered, must be accompanied by growing anxiety and fear.
Such implosion of history would build over time, extending, I expect, beyond the lifetime of my body. So the question arises, “why should I care what happens after my experience ends with my death?” People commonly admit to not caring about the world after their death and wish only to maximize their sensuous enjoyment while they are alive. From the strict standpoint of experience, this position is in error. First, the death of one’s own body is understood to be not an item of experience but the end of experience. While my body is alive, experience goes on, and it includes normal expectations of future experience. This expectation is so strong that historically there has been very widespread belief in some kind of afterlife. For the most part people believe that experience does continue after death, although they admit that it undergoes great change. In any case, the desire for good experience, indeed total good experience continues until the point of death.
This essay presents a total rational explanation of the world derived from the self-evident truth of immediate sense experience. As such, it compels assent. It answers the questions what am I, what can I know and what should I do by examining this experience solely as experience. Its conclusion agrees with common sense: I want my experience to be pleasant and coherent.
My examination of experience reveals the presence of a fundamental desire for thorough-going harmony among its contents of inner and outer images plus understanding. This amounts to an elemental wish to see justice among all the parts of experience. Insofar as my explanation satisfies this wish it is an object of conviction.
Altogether it is a world view which defines me as an experiencing subject constituted by my experiences. The latter – my visual images, my thoughts and all the rest are me, are what I am. This basic position is not new; it has been seen before in the history of philosophy in the forms of strict empiricism and phenomenology. Like these however, it contains some inconvenient features.
As described, outer and inner sense include no experience of myself as an agent. It renders me a mere spectator of external and internal images plus their emotional coloring. It also leaves me in the dark as to whether external objects or any other experiencing beings even exist.
While I want my world to be pleasing and just, the world that I have just described is quite flat and fails to provide real connection between me, other people and things. Being all about perceptions and feelings, it omits the sense of real unity and action. The principal thing missing from the foregoing picture is precisely life. What life is and how it is known is the subject of my next essay Ecomysticism.
1. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1911).
2. Walter Mosley, Life Out of Context, (New York: Nation Books, 2005).
Green journals spotlight projects around the country with stories showing people doing good things. But what are most Americans thinking? I’m an issue and electoral campaign organizer who does endless door knocking, phonebanking and event coordination. Through this activity I know the outlook of the people I deal with in several communities in eastern Pennsylvania. Liberals and conservatives alike basically believe in the classical liberal doctrine upon which the country was founded. This is centered on the idea of freedom.
Our big idea of freedom belongs to a series in Western history. That history shows that one after another such ideas become dominant, determine the zeitgeist for a certain period, break down into contradiction and then a replacement big idea arises. In our time the destruction of resources, people’s health and lives is due to industry and individuals pushing the limits of liberal freedom. The present crisis is the material expression of the big idea of freedom hitting the wall.
Because it has defined the zeitgeist, people have taken the idea of freedom for granted. Yet it was conceived by Enlightenment thinkers who presented it through the myth of the social contract. According to that story God created humans in a state of nature in which each one exercised virtually unlimited God-given freedom to seek their own self interest. A moment came when they formed the social contract and established a government which placed some limits on that freedom to protect everyone’s rights to life, health and property. At the same time it protected their right to exercise their remaining unlimited natural freedom.
The social contract story reflected the science of the time. That was classical mechanics which depicted the universe as composed of discrete elementary particles and collections of them, all having internal inertial states of motion and operating strictly in accordance with Newton’s Laws. Applied to humans this model defined people as discrete individuals whose nature it was to serve their own self interest, thus validating individual freedom as the supreme value of liberal political theory.
Claims for individual freedom today that include refusing to follow COVID public health rules, rejecting regulation and defying criminal laws now threaten life on every level. Freedom has become slavery to the global power elite and to leaders who, in Orwellian fashion, represent slavish allegiance to themselves as freedom.
The next big idea is fast emerging. “Water is Life” and “Black Lives Matter” are literal expressions of the new supreme value of our time. That life is the current priority is underscored by the urgent attention now demanded by the pandemic and climate change. These two issues have ascended to the top of a long list of abiding threats to people and the planet.
As the previous big idea of freedom rested on the foundation of Enlightenment physical science, so the new big idea of Life is backed by today’s life science. No longer are organisms understood as discrete entities whose sole purpose is their individual survival. Now the world is defined as so many whole living systems and living parts of those wholes. According to this view each organism functions to sustain itself while it sustains the whole systems of which it constitutes various parts.
Applying this model to humans means that people are whole living beings who are at the same time living parts of multiple other whole living systems. By nature individuals function to sustain themselves while they sustain these larger systems. The latter include particular local ecosystems as well as the total biosphere. Among them are also human communities which exist at multiple levels ranging from villages to nations and finally the global population.
Human communities contain specific functional systems, similarly to the way that a body contains systems that perform the functions of circulation, digestion and so forth. One such structure in the community is its government whose function is to secure the well-being of all the members and the community as a whole. As the government is a vital part of the whole system, every person who is a part of the community plays a role in sustaining it. Also as every cell in the body participates in all its system’s processes, so every person participates in their government.
The new big idea of Life gives rise to a new conception of the social contract. It is every person’s commitment to function as a citizen of their community to secure its well-being and that of all of its members. People are parts of multiple communities, so this commitment applies to all the jurisdictions of which they are citizens. Meanwhile, communities are parts of many other living systems, so the social contract requires ecologically-sound practices on the part of individuals and the full hierarchy of political bodies. In this way the social contract secures for everyone the primary freedom to live as well as freedom to participate in robust democracy.
The perfect structure for actualizing the big idea of Life is created by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment. This model centers people’s lives in their communities and thus provides for the local participatory democracy required for them to fully honor the new social contract. Far from reducing individual freedom, it liberates people from innumerable onerous constraints imposed by the current political economy.
As it defines each person as a vital part of multiple living systems constituted by communities and their political bodies the new big idea transforms people’s conceptions of themselves and others. For it means that someone else’s condition affects me and vice versa. This is actually a simple truth that is now becoming fully evident especially in regard to politics. People whose adverse economic or social situations causes them to not vote or oppose the public interest bring harm to me. Conversely, my support for the conditions that produce their misfortune injures them. It is always correlative. In a properly functioning living system different parts do not harm but rather support one another.
The old big idea of freedom for everyone to seek their own self-interest with minimal limits has brought us the triple crisis of pandemic, climate change and assault on democracy. A life-affirming economy that supports the most robust democracy will take time to achieve. It must however be the ultimate goal of progressive action. A major initial step is people consciously adopting the new big idea of Life. As they do this they must further recognize that big ideas whose time is past don’t go down quietly. Rather, they are displaced by people animated by the emerging zeitgeist determined to elevate the new idea to dominance.
My essay Freedom: A 21st Century Update – Phila Back expands the subject of this article. It elaborates how classical liberal freedom has devolved into slavery and ways in which the sustainable community model secures real freedom. It concludes with actions everyone can take now to put life first.
With Trump out of the White House America continues to face the triple crises of pandemic, climate change and assaults on democracy. His conduct as president made them especially severe because he set a standard of virtually unlimited personal freedom – whatever one can get away with by means of their fame, power, connections and money. The infamous remark “When you’re a star…you can do anything,”1 perfectly expressed his attitude. In myriad ways – refusing to wear masks, storming the capitol then expecting clemency, denying the election results and more – his followers seek similarly unlimited freedom. With or without the former president, the movement he led will continue, to be halted only by a stronger one that upholds limits on freedom for the common good, social justice and stewardship of the commons. Presently the Right has many tens of millions of supporters plus majorities in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as several state and local governments. It may win majorities in both houses of Congress in 2022. With the start of a new administration and congress advocates on all sides are now mobilizing to push their agendas. Yet piecemeal change will not conquer the crises of pandemic, climate change and democracy under siege. They require a unified approach based on a forward-looking conception of freedom.
Americans have long held a very broad notion of freedom. Now however the views of the Right and the Left are in mortal conflict, with both standing on the antiquated Enlightenment myth of the social contract. That there is no longer any social contract is well known and also that our government is now lacking in the legitimacy conferred by that contract. To restore its legitimacy, to protect both freedom and life, we need a new narrative that redefines freedom and democracy to meet the urgent needs of our time. In this essay I will first review classical liberal political theory then trace how that doctrine devolved into the neoliberal political economy that reached its climax in Trumpism. In this Orwellian world freedom indeed became slavery, and I explore some of its varieties. Using the Enlightenment’s own method I next offer a new social contract narrative that satisfies the requirements of reason as it enhances freedom, democracy and life. The present extreme threats to life that include climate change, pandemic and environmental destruction further demand a new political economy for which I present a basic model. This provides the optimal structure for democracy and, with it, legitimacy. My review of history, ideas and current conditions leads to a new conception of freedom which people can adopt now to embrace both liberty and life.
The Original Social Contract Story
America’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – are based on the classical liberal political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their views differed in some respects, but they agreed that the authority of government is derived from the consent of the governed which was originally granted by the social contract. The story of the social contract is a myth according to which humans initially lived in the “state of nature.” Hobbes identified this state with anarchy, “the war of all against all.”2 For Locke it was a mythical society in which people had unlimited freedom subject only to the law of nature which was basically the Golden Rule that everyone enforced for themselves.3 Rousseau depicted it as the original condition of humanity in which people all lived separately like Robinson Carusoe.4 They concurred that God created humans in the state of nature, granting them vast freedom to act within their physical and mental capacities. Hobbes considered humans to be savages by nature, while Locke and Rousseau ascribed to them kinder dispositions. In all versions humans by nature originally acted in accordance with their individual self-interest. People in the state of nature were however endowed with reason, by which they saw that they would all be better off with some cooperation among themselves. So they unanimously formed the social contract which established a commonwealth, political society or body politic, agreeing to limit some of their natural freedoms in exchange for collective protection of those now limited ones as well as their remaining unlimited freedoms. By this means they transformed, with some restriction, their God-given natural freedom into fundamental constitutional rights.
Establishing the social contract did not abolish the state of nature but rather created a new civic order which superimposed a civic identity upon the people who otherwise retained their natural character. As citizens people had a duty to abide by the laws, but as private individuals they were free to do anything which was not prohibited by law, with this freedom being protected by the law. Our philosophers stressed that the body politic was “artificial” to distinguish it from the underlying natural order.
The social contract story was embedded in the broader outlook of the Enlightenment. This included Newtonian science, natural law theory with its long history from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and natural history. Calling itself “the Age of Reason,” thinkers in this period employed rigorous methods of reasoning, believing that such techniques certified the material truth of their theories and assertions.
From the discovery of the same constant mathematical patterns in the motion of bodies ranging from pebbles to planets Enlightenment scientists conceived an entire world view. It represented the universe as composed of elementary material bodies and discrete collections of them acting at every level according to Newton’s laws. Being thoroughly quantitative it defined everything in terms of units which, according to the concept of partes extra partes exist alongside, beyond and exterior to each other with no interdependence, only external independent existence. All objects were understood to have internal inertial states of motion exemplified by the uniform rectilinear motion of planets whose paths were bent into ellipses by external forces of gravity. As the laws were verified with observations of innumerable kinds of macroscopic objects they were declared to be the universal laws of nature attributed to God the creator who imposed them on his creation rather as human lawmakers impose laws on citizens. Further, assuming the conceptual character of mathematics the laws were claimed to be absolutely true and necessary, indeed revealed by the light of reason. Hope for the new science took the form of a belief in inexorable and continual progress.
Nature and reason were the two sources of authority with which our political philosophers disputed monarchs’ claims to divine right based on religious grounds. Supported by the advance of science, they were inclined to identify the two, elevating the tradition of natural law to rational truth as well. Locke wrote, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”5
Reports of Indigenous Peoples newly discovered in America were seized upon as representations of the natural, original state of human beings and as evidence for the species’ progress. Our thinkers’ method of reasoning and intellectual heritage however led them to quite mischaracterize such “natural” men. Hobbes was a mechanistic determinist, believing that people were collections of physical particles behaving strictly in accordance with Newton’s laws. Locke and Rousseau meanwhile held to the traditional Christian notion of free will. Above all they adhered to the Enlightenment’s precept of partes extra partes. Humans were a priori conceived entirely as individuals, a viewpoint which was central to the Enlightenment overall.
Another critical feature of their method was Aristotelian syllogistic logic according to which the conclusion of a deductive inference is assumed in the major premise. This, paired with the principle of sufficient reason underlay their “self-evident truths.” An example is that all men are created equal, a conclusion they deduced by first defining humans as a natural species of animal, then asserting that there are no natural social rankings among animals of the same species which thus makes them equal in rank. This claim was reinforced by the principle of sufficient reason according to which there is nothing in the idea of man so defined which would indicate any difference in rank among them. Following this reasoning it is seen that “all men are created equal” simply means that insofar as they are all members of the human species, there are no differences in rank among people, making them in this respect sthe same as swine or sheep.
The total Enlightenment approach to ideas and method was reflected in the classical liberal political philosophers’ construction of the social contract narrative. It presumed historical progress and defined human beings as individuals in internal states of motion seeking their own self-interest. Claiming the authority of reason it further asserted that humans were all created equal. All this moreover was the work of God the creator and lawgiver of nature. Finally, the source that revealed natural and mathematical truths to humans – the light of reason – also led humans to establish the social contract. As this light was believed to continue to reveal the secrets of nature forever into the future, so it was expected to guide political conduct following the creation of the social contract. Like Newtonian science which combined the pure rationality of mathematics with much empirical content, our philosophers sought to justify their vision to the greatest possible extent by means of formal reasoning while also drawing on material representing the human condition past and present.
The story of the social contract established the fundamental rights and the origin of the sovereign which served to legitimize the government that it created. Our three philosophers presented different models of what that government should be: Hobbes was a theocratic monarchist, while Locke advocated representative democracy. Rousseau favored participatory democracy like that of his native Geneva and ancient Greece. The American Founders followed Locke, securing very broad fundamental rights and trusting that legislators and the sovereign people would always sustain the common good.
Supreme among the values guiding the Founders and which their successors were intended to uphold was personal liberty. They declared
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
Happiness - That to secure these rights, Governments are
instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent
of the governed...
By liberty they meant the freedom to do anything that does not harm others. Moreover, they held that government must not impose any limits on this freedom except those which preserve the liberty of all and are specifically established by law.
From Liberalism to Neoliberalism
As the American political order was being constructed to implement classical liberal political theory, science continued to advance. Its method was extended to new areas of study including economics. In 1776 Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in which he asserted that the free market was governed by the law of supply and demand. Under this law buyers and sellers necessarily benefit fairly in every transaction because of the universal influence of the benevolent “invisible hand.” Smith’s subject of study was the specifically economic aspect of people’s lives which he called homo oeconomicus or “economic man.” Rooted in classical liberal philosophy and emphasizing national policy, his new science was what is known as classical liberal political economy.
America declined to adopt Smith’s pure laissez-faire approach and for several decades after the founding managed its economy according to the American System whose principal features were tariffs, a national bank and federal subsidies for infrastructure. Following the Civil War big business boomed, igniting first the populist then the progressive movements which gave birth to big government programs and regulations. Much reform came about from fear of communism and fascism which drove American policy makers to put the demands of working and poor people ahead of those of the wealthy and businesses. Once big government came into existence it became a magnet for all manner of interests. While the chief contenders for most of the twentieth century were business and its countervailing force labor, our government became consumed with responding to the multitude of competing claims placed upon it.
As New Deal policies were advancing in America in the 1930s reaction against socialism was building among some European economists. Neoliberalism, the Austrian School’s new model of political economy, gained traction after World War II when the Allies were constructing the post-war social democratic order. With the goal of replacing that system with his neoliberal vision Friedrich von Hayek enlisted a number of European and American economists and businesspeople. Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago was on board with von Hayek from the beginning, and the two made rapid progress at that institution with each winning Nobel Prizes. Their efforts were crowned with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America, both of whom shifted their countries to the neoliberal model of political economy.
Neoliberalism is a radical revision of the core ideas of classical liberal political philosophy and political economy. Like them it affirms maximum individual freedom but asserts that this requires a free competitive market that embraces all aspects of life. Insisting that socialism, even the tiniest speck of it, necessarily leads to fascism, neoliberalism demands that government must be reduced to its barest functions of securing persons, property, contracts and the value of money as it promotes capital accumulation through the maintenance and expansion of the competitive market. For neoliberal capitalist enterprise harmful impacts to people and the environment are “externalities.” People are defined all-inclusively as homo oeconomicus, meaning that all facets of their lives are matters of market competition. Being “entrepreneurs of themselves,” they must competitively market themselves in any and every human relationship. As these are multiple, people are thus “bundles of enterprises” always employing or investing their natural, inherited and acquired “human capital” for personal gain. Though it exalts freedom neoliberalism asserts that people’s actions are determined by “rational choice.” That is, among possible alternatives, they choose the one that they judge best serves their individual self-interest and competitive advantage. Ultimately their fates are determined by the invisible hand of the market which ensures that the necessary and universal law of supply and demand always prevails and can never fail.
Classical liberal philosophers defended their model as being the way of God’s creation and reason. Neoliberals however swear by the God-almighty market and further insist that their system is the only means of avoiding the descent into fascism or the “road to serfdom.” Moreover, while liberal government is formed and maintained by popular consent, neoliberalism has been imposed on nations by force or leaders making deceptive promises of freedom and prosperity, never by the fully informed consent of the governed. Freedom within neoliberalism is, in Milton Friedman’s words, nothing but “freedom to choose” between competing market offerings within the system.6 They deny that the neoliberal system itself is an object of choice, insisting that “There is no alternative” (TINA).
This is what the freedom of the Founders has devolved into today. In violation of the core principle of competition in their ideology the Reagan administration early on virtually abandoned anti-trust policy. Corporate giants decimated smaller businesses, and wealth became highly concentrated, a consequence Hayek in fact foresaw. His vision for free enterprise also included free trade, so today the market is dominated by the global corporate elite which has established institutions of global governance that can override sovereign nations’ law-making authority. Competition between businesses is now waged globally as they all strain to increase profits, reduce expenses and raise stock values. This compels countries to compete against each other to attract global businesses by offering business-friendly conditions consisting of cheap labor, little regulation and low taxes. Domestically states and communities must compete for businesses to locate in them with an array of taxpayer-funded enticements. Four decades of neoliberal off-shoring, M&A, downsizing, union-busting, relentless quest for greater efficiency, deregulation, privatization and financial crises have exacted an immense toll on the American people.
The Culture of Neoliberalism
As our economy has been transformed, so has our culture. While Thatcher was declaring, “…there is no society. There are individual men and women and there are families,”7 Americans were shifting to what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism.”8 Change in the nature of work played a large role in this, as the previous model of long-term full-time employment with companies providing generous benefits was overturned. It was progressively replaced by an array of precarious arrangements – contract work, on-demand schedules, temps – plus continual market flux that requires people to often seek new jobs, update skills, reskill and work two or three jobs at a time. The fluid nature of work spread to social relations in general, making them particularly superficial and transient or “liquid” according to Zygmunt Bauman.9
Being centered on competition has given neoliberal culture certain distinctive features. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook have named it “The Winner-Take-All Society”10 in which corporate boards of directors, universities, sports teams and television networks set the standard by elevating a few people to the status of stars for the purpose of successfully competing with their rivals. This has produced the overall cult of celebrity which trickles down to ordinary people who engage in more or less universal individual and group competition. The neoliberal imperative of maximizing the return on one’s human capital in a competitive market means that people will make the most of whatever advantages they have from their birth and upbringing, most notably white privilege. Competition, as Paul Riesling observed in Babbitt, isn’t aimed at achieving something but rather at defeating one’s opponent.11 Systemic racism is thus baked into neoliberalism, as is patriarchy. Individuals compete to get jobs, then to move up the ladder in their organization or industry, while even staying in the same position entails competitive effort. Being in an organization involves playing on its team in competition against rivals, and this requires team members to fit into its culture. The team model is reproduced across the spectrum of human associations, with each person having multiple identities as employees, members of families, churches, political parties and more.
Apart from the particular circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing, which it insists can always be surmounted, neoliberalism claims that an individual freely chooses the components of their identity – their job, hair style, religion, political affiliation and so on. This view pretends that a free individual with an original nature exists, but that is mostly a myth. Individuality is a creation of the free market. Offering Fords and Chevys, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, CNN and Fox, marketers exhort us to make the choice that expresses our “individuality.” In fact however our choices define our individuality. If there were only one kind of car, individuality in choosing one would have no meaning. As we proceed in life our identity builds with the choices we make among alternatives for education, jobs, cars, social groups, virtually everything.
By insisting that people make free rational choices solely to advance their individual self-interest neoliberalism denies the immense influence of marketing. Yet as it defines everything in terms of the market it construes all human behavior as basically consumer behavior. Under neoliberalism marketing as well as propaganda profoundly affect people as consumers. Although their identities are defined by their consumer choices and they are influenced by marketing, individual people remain the agents making the choices. Indeed, as Bauman says, “Consumption is a supremely solitary activity…”12 This fact explains how individuality and communality are conjoined in neoliberal culture and why the pendulum has swung from people touting their singularity to packing into its distinctive type of tribes.
Brands Take Over
In the early days of neoliberalism in America people were bent on escaping collective behavior and thinking, hence the culture of narcissism. Robert Bellah’s 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life described how people insisted on forming their own opinions, doing their own things and expecting others to do the same. They constructed their individual identities by collecting assorted bits from a vast smorgasbord of choices exemplified by “Sheilaism,” the personal patchwork religion of a woman named Sheila.13 People still insist on making their own choices, but market alternatives have now been considerably consolidated into a limited number of broadly inclusive packages. How this came about is the story of brands related by Naomi Klein in her 2000 book No Logo.14
At its most basic level marketing aims not to sell a product to a consumer but some personal, often intangible, reward from it, e.g., not some food, but the enjoyment of the food, not the Cadillac, but the status of the Cadillac. Klein explains that in the 1990s marketing was dramatically transformed through a shift of focus to brands. Nike led the pack by divesting from the production of sneakers and undertaking to market its name and logo to represent such ideals as athleticism, winning and freedom. By doing this it sought to satisfy people’s desire for meaning in their lives and the world. The brand represented by the logo was extended to a wide array of products, teams and events, achieving a degree of saturation. With advertisements featuring athletic stars, notably Michael Jordan who even got his name on one line, the brand defined a lifestyle. All the branded products, people and events together formed the Nike universe which consumers entered when they bought the goods and in which they were immersed when they attended the events. Live Michael Jordan games were particularly intense Nike universe experiences, while the televised games were lesser ones. As consuming something involves identifying oneself with it as well as with other consumers of the same brand, gatherings under a brand validate and reinforce each person’s identification with that brand and create a form of communality. With immersive events, videos and superstar role models Nike produced and marketed a broad and vibrant mindset by which consumers in some measure transcended their reality. This was especially illustrated by the passion with which impoverished inner city youth embraced the Nike and Jordan brands and their success with teenagers around the world.
The Nike marketing technique was carried to its ultimate extreme by Donald Trump. Early in his career he established an image as an icon of success, wealth, glamour, ruthless business practices and, above all, winning. Like Nike he diversified his business empire to include office buildings, hotels, resorts, golf courses, casinos, a university, book, steaks and even endorsement of Oreos. Further, like Nike, much of this consisted in selling licenses for the use of the Trump brand rather than actual ownership and operation. The brand not only spread the glow of Trump’s stardom over consumers’ experience of the branded products and services, it literally incorporated them into his world as tenants, guests, members and students. Starting with the Miss Universe pageant he progressively moved onto television, the optimal platform from which to promote himself and his brand. A 2018 New Yorker article explained how The Apprentice resurrected Trump’s then failing empire and paved the way to his presidency.15 The program was created specifically for Trump by Mark Burnett who had previously conceived and produced Survivor. As a youth Burnett was fascinated by Lord of the Flies, and his first series embodied that novel’s ethos. Depicting Trump as a business superstar The Apprentice vastly expanded the Trump universe and amplified its values.
In The Apprentice people came onto the program to compete for the favor of Trump in his stage persona to win jobs in his real organization. With his power over the contestants he rather played God by passing final judgement on them, treating losers with his signature cruelty. While the contestants were literally immersed in Trump’s universe as program apprentices viewers of it were immersed in it vicariously. As with any successful narrative the audience identified and connected with various characters. What was significant about the show was how it dramatized the neoliberal culture of competition by exalting winners and demeaning losers. Identifying with the Trump character, viewers shared the brutally competitive, even sadistic sentiments portrayed as emblems of spectacular success. The show added new elements to the Trump universe – the character which was a mythical version of the real person and the whole television audience which affirmed its values to varying degrees.
Emboldened by his increased celebrity, Trump went on to wage his birther campaign, adding a racist contingent to his universe. His presidential campaign may have been intended as only a marketing stunt for his brand, but with it he exploited white nationalist tendencies, absorbing another bloc into his base. Central to his campaign were the rallies that could be compared to Michael Jordan basketball games with the brand emblazoned all over, frenzied fans wearing the brand caps and shirts and a spectacular performance by the candidate who had assumed a rock star-like image.
With his entry into the presidential race and his campaign messaging, Trump magnified another aspect of that image – power. Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer said “…He’s very much like a cult leader. When you’re in his good grace, you believe that you have this enormous amount of power, which you do…”16 The candidate Trump projected an image of extraordinary power with fantastic campaign promises such as that he would make Mexico pay to build his wall, abolish all regulations and lock up Hillary Clinton. Like branded crowd events his rallies validated and reinforced the participants’ identification with his brand and further generated communality among them. Moreover, because a celebrity or popular candidate owes their status to their fan or supporter base, this dependence creates a bond between them and the star. Trump the candidate’s power was also very visibly augmented by his rally crowds’ electoral power. Once he was elected he proceeded to abuse the power of his office to enforce the loyalty of other officials, and on his way out he weaponized his command of his electoral base for the same purpose.
Trump expanded Nike’s brand saturation strategy to the nth degree. Impacts to matters great and small around the world essentially bore the “Trump” stamp. At the center of the Trump brand universe stood the man himself, a paragon of power, wealth and unrestrained freedom. As president he received immense media coverage, some of it fawning as from Fox, and the rest moderately to brutally critical. For Trump’s purpose however there was no such thing as bad publicity as he employed Twitter as a 24/7 personal media channel. The Trump universe was coextensive with the globe, but there were degrees of inclusion in it. Just as seeing the Nike logo on some object or ad places a person in the Nike universe in a minimal capacity, so merely reading or watching the news drew people into Trump’s, at least on the fringe. His fiercest opponents were in well into his realm, as he dominated their thinking. It had a fervent hard core, one medium for which was his campaign’s online alternate universe. Thomas Edsall described this website and app as “a self-contained, self-reinforcing arena where Trump reigns supreme” and which traps people “inside an ecosystem of dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories and grievance politics.”17 Providing nightly live shows and training videos with surrogates and senior campaign staff it aimed to make the experience as fun and exciting as possible with the app serving to capture ever more people. For sharing it supporters won points redeemable for campaign merchandise discounts with the ultimate prize being a picture with the candidate.
Over his career Trump has become increasingly audacious with his defiance of normal standards of civilized, decent and moral conduct. Edsall goes on to relate how in politics he poses as a champion for people who believe that they are the victims of social control by the established political leadership. The more he lies, brazenly violates norms and antagonizes the establishment, the more credible is his claim to be the leader of those who feel disenfranchised by that establishment. As a model of uninhibited freedom Trump brandished his exercise of the ultimate freedom of a ruler – the power of life or death over particular individuals, the methodical use of which is known as “necropolitics.”
The supreme freedom that Trump finally has most consistently exercised is the freedom to create one’s own truth. At the center of his universe there is a realm of thought in which global warming and coronavirus are hoaxes and he won the 2020 election. Like the more devoted Nike brand enthusiasts, Trump supporters transcend their reality by believing his representation of the world and embedding themselves in his alternate universe. Relentless attempts by state and federal officials as well as unruly mobs to overturn Trump’s defeat in the election brought that alternate universe closer to reality.
I compare the Trump phenomenon to the Nike and Michael Jordan brands in order to demonstrate how individual freedom figures in each. Like Nike purchasers, every Trump supporter functions as a neoliberal free agent of rational choice, which means basically as a consumer. This is how they safeguard their foremost value of individual freedom, the more unrestrained the better. Solidarity, a fundamental feature of labor movements, is alien to Trumpism. Trump himself, with his everlasting antics, is not only the fountainhead but represents the very incarnation of uninhibited freedom along with the rest of the values of his universe. Advocates of unlimited freedom rally behind their idol, emulating him with acts of intimidation and violence against officials and citizens. He can’t admit that he lost the election because winning is absolutely essential to his image.
Trump and his universe did not come about in a vacuum; rather he rose as a marketing sensation within the total neoliberal culture. That culture glorifies material success and condemns failure with media feeding a winner-take-all spirit. Trump’s political success depends on his image as a billionaire businessman celebrity – the ideal fulfillment of popular aspiration. Neoliberal subjects are driven by competitive self-interest, so they naturally choose to ally or identify themselves with people and brands that promise to advance it. With brand marketing consumers are drawn into universes of products, activities, media, lifestyles, values, superstar idols and communality in which they transcend their realities and at the extreme abide in alternate ones. All these elements of neoliberal culture were brought together by Trump to create, grow, consolidate and tyrannically preserve his domain.
While his doing this is not news, I have sought to illuminate how it embodies standard features of our culture and shall now describe how these figure in group affiliations in general. Textbook neoliberal subjects freely choose their jobs, education, social groups and even association with family once they become adults. Of course this is nonsense, as, in addition to marketing, family influence and peer pressure, not to mention individual economic circumstances, play large roles. Still, these are individual choices, free or otherwise, that define people’s identities and can therefore be treated as consumer decisions.
Contrary to neoliberal doctrine, not all such choices are made for individual self-advancement. They do, however generally reflect neoliberal consumer culture in several ways. The consumer market is driven by novelty: people are constantly exhorted by advertising to buy the newest thing and discard the old. This impels people to seek immediate gratification and guaranteed satisfaction. Consumer offerings are designed to provide only short-term contentment, setting the consumer up for the next powerful marketing hit. With products quickly wearing out, breaking down, becoming obsolete or passé and novelty soon wearing off, the consumer outlook is short-term.
This is yet another component of the overall liquid character of culture rooted in transitory work described by Bauman which especially reduces and weakens social commitments. Within neoliberal culture group affiliations are frequently approached as short-term affairs, sometimes lasting only a matter of hours or minutes. Examples of the latter are many rallies and marches such as the 2014 People’s Climate March. Bauman has called this kind of gathering “swarms.”18 They are intended, above all, to get media coverage, so they prioritize crowd size, visuals and celebrity speakers. Longer term but still light commitments he calls “cloakroom communities” – regular actual or virtual gatherings of people who share a single narrow interest.19 Reflecting the domination of media and celebrity culture these tend to consist of followers of a single person who has successfully marketed the organization and themselves, delivering the “verdict of the market.” As with branded crowd events people joining swarms and cloakroom communities demonstrate mutual approval of each other’s participation which amounts to “validation by the market.” The least engaged form of group affiliation is that of membership in staff-run organizations. Robert Putnam has called this phenomenon “consuming a cause” or “citizenship by proxy.”20 In these different ways people adopt so many group identities in the manner of consumers, similarly to the way they acquire furniture for their homes or clothes for their wardrobes.
Although the phrase “identity group” commonly pertains to racial, ethnic and gender distinctions, people with the affiliations I have just described constitute identity groups as well. Early in the twentieth century sociologist Georg Simmel observed that, as a defense against anomie in mass society, people form groups with like-minded others. In assembling they automatically establish a distinction between insiders and outsiders. Over time enforced conformity within groups grows, producing their distinctive groupthink.21 Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm maintained that the purpose of identity groups is not to include but to exclude.22
I have given an account of group affiliation according to basic consumer behavior. It has been significantly modified by the advent of big group brands starting with Christian, which Reagan annexed to the Republican Party. That party brand has since devoured blocs of former Southern Democrats, union members and even People of Color. Like Hannah Arendt’s totalitarian onion, it has a hard right-wing core with increasingly moderate surrounding layers. Still it is a brand that commands its registrants’ votes. Americans are deeply polarized, with their positions defined more in negative than in positive terms. The Republican brand mostly represents anti-socialism, while the Democratic brand has no fixed meaning beyond being the anti-Republican brand. In the meantime, the Independent brand is the anti-Republican and anti-Democratic brand. These brands form parts, sometimes large parts, of people’s identities while, like at Nike, the brand universes are controlled by marketing pros for the organizations’ profit.
Much of neoliberal culture can therefore be understood in terms of brands, including neoliberalism itself which goes by the name “capitalism.” As brands such as Nike, Trump and the Republican Party form universes of meaning and action, so does capitalism, which is a total universe. And here is the contradiction at its heart: people freely choose to be a part of it, paradoxically meaning that they freely choose to be enslaved by it.
The reality of neoliberalism is that it is a contrived system dominated by the global elite which is ever increasing its own wealth and power but which disseminates a libertarian message. Thus we have masses of people who are libertarians at heart passionately serving the masters of global neoliberalism. Some support virtually unlimited personal freedom as exhibited in the resistance to wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Trumpism is very much a personality cult to which its members surrender their personal autonomy. Strict loyalty to the Republican or Democratic Party are surrenders as well. Considering the group structure of neoliberalism with its identity groups and groupthink the overall truth about “freedom” in this system can be clearly seen.
When Freedom Becomes Slavery
The Western tradition since Antiquity has been to define freedom in such a way as to make it the opposite of slavery. So I now turn to bringing some historical perspective to current popular notions of freedom. A key text for this project is Albert Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel, in which the author recounts several approaches to freedom that end in slavery. He traces the movement for total freedom, which he identifies with nihilism, from de Sade through nineteenth century Russian anarchists and twentieth century absurdists, concluding “that the negation of everything is a form of servitude.”23 Several figures he names were willing to die for unlimited freedom, the very claim made by some anti-maskers and insurrectionists today. One slave to his ideology was Saint-Just, the extremist leader in the French Revolution who was sent to the guillotine by his rivals. Camus cites the lesson on freedom in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. In that tale Christ returns to establish heaven on earth, but, seized by the Grand Inquisitor, he is told that people don’t want freedom but rather to be controlled by the Church. This is not because they are cowardly, but because they are lazy. Ordered by the Inquisitor to leave and never return, Christ retreats to heaven in defeat. Another dramatic historical example he gives is that of Spartacus, leader of a famous Roman slave rebellion. The slave, Camus says, achieves a measure of freedom in the act of rebellion. To this insight I add Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave relation which reveals that the master is in bondage insofar as he is dependent on his slave and must continually act to keep him oppressed. In this respect the slave is independent of the master and thus his master. By destroying the relationship a slave rebellion liberates both masters and slaves. Camus’ final study is of twentieth century communism, relating how the Russian Revolution inevitably led to Stalinism. Addressing contemporary French communists he condemned their slavery to an ideology that promised perfect freedom in some distant future while presently sanctioning bloody repression.
Slavery to ideology is notoriously irrational or Orwellian. People today are not so much enslaved by ideologies as the types of brand universes that I have described. Trump’s alternative universe is one extreme example, but there are several other more or less comprehensive or immoderate such realms. For charismatic evangelicals God is the guiding force in their lives and the world, and they tend toward vehement anti-intellectualism. Otherwise the groupthink of all the kinds of associations I mentioned is at least limited in its scope and therefore lacks full rational justification. This ranges from blind loyalty to a party brand to people who exclusively follow some single political commentator. There are certainly some good ones among the latter, but it must be recognized that insofar as those are mere journalists they are not historians, political philosophers or activist movement leaders. None of them present full visions of how the world should be, much less roadmaps for how to make it so. Celebrities take a national perspective, never adapting their messaging to particular local audiences and their unique conditions. Finally, they are creatures of the media market in either its mainstream or niche form.
Freedom and Reason
Decades ago Herbert Marcuse explained that the structure of scientific understanding, advertising and propaganda has spawned a pervasive “one-dimensional” mode of communication and thought.24 Its basic constructions are absolute declarative sentences and standard heavily connotative adjectives attached to certain proper and common nouns. Examples of the former are “the universe began with the big bang,” “Healthcare is a right,” “Walmart. Always low prices,” while the latter are represented by “quality affordable healthcare” and “crooked Hillary.” One-dimensional speech, writing and thinking preempt further reflection which might negate or qualify it, rendering it simple dogma. The identity groups that I have described are formed around doctrines commonly expressed as slogans and labels that reflect the one-dimensional character of the groups’ positions. Examples include “Make America Great Again” and “Pro-Choice.”
For Enlightenment thinkers the exercise of reason was a vital component of human freedom, but they differed on what that meant. Our Founders believed that the laws of nature and the liberal political order were revealed by the light of reason which would continue to guide the leaders of the state. Rousseau was more pragmatic and democratic, respecting the ordinary rational faculties of individual citizens. In his native city-state of Geneva he had first-hand experience of its tradition of participatory democracy, regarding the social contract of every individual with every other one as the enduring ground of the body politic. Factions were therefore antithetical to his model. George Washington warned of “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,”25 which promotes government corruption and inefficiency, divides society and fosters conflict, encourages political instability and weakness and exposes the state to foreign infiltration. Ironically, as Americans condemn our partisan politics, their resistance mostly consists of forming new factions – supporters of Trump, Bernie Sanders, Proud Boys, Democratic Socialists, and so on.
In our time group identity and groupthink are two sides of the same coin. Identifying with a group means thinking and speaking like them, at least in their company. Conversely, taking one’s thinking from a particular group means identifying with them for their specific purpose. People’s identity and thinking therefore mostly consist of a set of consumer choices like what they wear, e.g., Hanes T shirt, Levi’s jeans and Nike sneakers.
Light of reason notwithstanding, classical liberal political theory is an ideology, as are its successors neoliberalism, libertarianism, Christian nationalism and progressivism. Within the neoliberal system, which isn’t offered as an object of choice, the latter three creeds are consumer options. Obviously, apart from broad principles, many people mix and match positions on particular issues, refining their consumer choices in the same manner as they go to this or that supermarket and choose among their selections of identical or similar products. There are conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans whose views agree or differ issue-by-issue. Everyone is alike in making choices in political matters whether they are narrow or comprehensive, with no opinion being a choice as well.
Eschewing factions Rousseau envisioned all the people engaging as citizens with the full exercise of their powers of reason. Except for the principle of popular sovereignty, this view is devoid of ideology or some scientific model of public affairs. It amounts merely to people rationally working together to address concerns that affect their collective well-being. Eliminating slavery to factions, ideologies and brands, it represents the supreme freedom of the citizen. For it embodies the core concepts of the social contract – that people exercise freedom without harming each other and that they share equally and rationally in governing themselves.
A Twenty-First Century Social Contract
In so many ways America has drifted far, far away from its original ideals of freedom, democracy and legitimacy. It is now in the throes of three major crises – the pandemic, climate change and right-wing extremism. The election of Biden and Harris alone certainly won’t bring about the fundamental change that we need to survive these threats. I have traced the history of liberal democracy to reveal how it has degenerated into our current state. Now I propose to repair the damage with updated, improved understanding of freedom, democracy and legitimacy in a new political philosophy.
In all the systems of thought in the Western tradition methods of strict reasoning are paramount. The wide variation among these interpretations owes much to the difference in the first principles they postulate which are the premises upon which they rationally build their structures. Our Enlightenment political philosophers made human freedom their first principle. Relying on Aristotelian and medieval methods of reasoning they developed the rest. They chose freedom as their foundation because that was supreme political priority of their time.
Following that precedent, I ask, What is the most urgent concern of our time? Devastation from climate change and the pandemic, “Black Lives Matter,” “Water Is Life” – it’s obvious: our chief priority is life. Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Times that in response to the anti-maskers’ defense of their freedom, liberals should say, “Freedom means the freedom not to get infected by the idiot who refuses to mask up.”26 This is a clever point, but it still subordinates life to freedom. I note that the Declaration of Independence lists the God-given inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in that order.
In identifying life as our premier value, I further ask, Why? How has this come about? Climate change and the zoonotic coronavirus have arisen precisely from people exercising their neoliberal freedom, dismissing environmental harm as an externality. As I have indicated, racial and wealth inequality are inevitable consequences of that freedom as well. Harm to the environment is abuse, and systemic racism is oppression, a version of the master/slave relation which the master must exert much effort to maintain. The classical liberal/neoliberal doctrine of freedom is the problem, which I propose to replace with one centered on life.
While classical liberal thinkers interpreted human life in terms of the partes extra partes concept fundamental to Newtonian mechanics, the exclusive reign of that scientific model was short-lived. Experimental researchers soon discovered a multitude of patterns in nature that were not directly reducible to the motion of elementary bodies. The study of organic nature – biology and medicine – proceeded on a different track, acknowledging their subjects as living systems. Over time Newtonian physics has been circumscribed by relativity and field theory as well as quantum mechanics, and life science now firmly embraces the study of systems. The physical science upon which the classical liberal conception of freedom was founded is obsolete for that purpose, as it is now understood to represent the mechanistic but not the living aspect of nature.
Although Enlightenment thinkers claimed that natural science and their political knowledge were revealed by the light of reason as absolute and necessary truth, science, which now includes social science, has long abandoned such pretension. Science is about theoretical models which have some measure of experimental or empirical support and of which competing ones exist within disciplines. I have stated that neoliberalism is a model that has been imposed by the power elite on the global economy. While it has self-fulfilled many of its prophesies, it was in fact decisively falsified by the 2008 financial crash and remains on life-support through ever-growing government and central bank interventions.
The perennial Western method of reasoning does not by itself find or establish truth but develops systems of inferences from axioms and definitions in mathematics, hypotheses in science and first principles in philosophy. Traditionally the latter have been claimed to be self-evident, so I now ask, Is not life also one of or even the first principle of human knowledge? Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am,” proceeding to “prove” that he was an immaterial ghost in a physical machine. An even more self-evident truth is I think, therefore I live, for there is no inference, not even a statement, unless I exist for the time it occupies, that is, unless I live as I make it. I could provide more arcane reasons for adopting life as the first principle for political philosophy, but in the end, the choice is somewhat arbitrary. The Enlightenment selected freedom because it was the burning priority of their time. Life, understood in the broadest sense as the biosphere, is now literally burning, making it the premier issue for humans in our time.
Classical liberal political thinkers fixed on the first principle of their theory then applied the knowledge and method of their day to develop it. Having selected my first principle I shall follow their precedent by next elaborating it in accordance with the basics of current life science. Far from the seventeenth century’s universal principle of partes extra partes living things today are understood in terms of systems – the interconnections between organisms, their inorganic environment and among themselves. Systems analysis involves defining things not as isolated and independent atoms but as parts of systematic wholes. Nature consists of infinitely numerous whole systems that intersect and form parts of yet larger wholes, encompassing organic and inorganic objects alike.
Living things act to sustain themselves within the manifold systems of which they form parts, and as parts sustaining themselves entails sustaining those systems. Individual organisms all have finite lifespans, but there is reproduction within their populations and species by which these endure indefinitely as they too sustain the systems of which they form parts. In fact, living is chiefly aimed at the continuation of life at every level. The simple act of eating serves to provide energy for an animal in the future, after its body has processed the food. Likewise throughout populations of species and across the biosphere life is directed at perpetuating itself indefinitely. At the same time natural history tells us that systems do undergo change, can suffer damage and recover or even be destroyed, especially by major short- or long-term geologic or meteorologic events.
Though death is inevitable, our priority is life. So as I proceed to recast the understanding of human life to align with current life science, I will focus on the characteristics of living systems that sustain their life. This endeavor requires first redefining the human individual as a whole organism which is also a part of larger whole living systems. As such their essential function is to sustain themselves while they sustain these other systems: this is the ecological imperative. It contrasts profoundly with the classical liberal conception by which an individual seeks their own self-interest by any means whatsoever as long as they do not injure other people. That basic right is at the bottom of every environmental and social justice conflict which all revolve around direct versus indirect harm. The fundamentalist approach confines it to immediate injury while the systems view has potentially unlimited reach.
Freedom in my story is freedom for the individual to live and to function as parts of the larger living systems that literally support their individual life. The first component is presently the standard progressive agenda expressed in the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life” as well as demands for clean air, universal healthcare, basic income and so forth. The second component implies a far more ambitious program, as those kinds of systems are currently badly damaged or do not exist at all. To take air, for example, such freedom means living within a mode of production that does not poison the atmosphere and overheat the planet. This condition for freedom is an objective to be achieved along with many others including a thoroughly healthy biosphere in the place of the one that is now dying before our eyes.
A conception of individual freedom involving conditions for the realization of that freedom is not new. While the Founders accentuated their idea of freedom, most of their effort was directed at establishing the conditions in which it could exist. The Declaration of Independence is mostly a list of grievances against restraints and abuses inflicted upon the colonists as it asserts that government is instituted precisely to secure fundamental rights or freedoms. Following this precedent, my version of freedom is also to be secured by a government.
My first principle for political thought with its definition of the human creature leads to a new view of the social contract. It defines the political body or polity as a living system which is a living part of another living system that is the community with which it is coextensive. The parts of the polity are all the citizens who count as essential, with no one cast as worthless or disposable. People who, despite the best efforts of the polity, persist as threats to it are of course treated as criminals. The purpose of the polity is to secure the well-being of the community and all its members. Insofar as the polity is a part of the community and citizenship is a part of its members’ lives, it also functions to secure the well-being of itself and the members in their capacity as citizens. The social contract is precisely people’s continual commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the polity. While no kind of formal law itself, it serves as the moral foundation of the constitution, legislation, executive and judicial decisions. The government that is made legitimate by this social contract is most directly local participatory democracy that adheres to the rule of law. Legitimacy of higher levels of government is similarly established by the peoples’ commitment to perform the functions of citizens in the representative democracy of those levels to secure the well-being of their jurisdictions and residents under the rule of law.
Thus defined as a living system that includes all the citizens as essential parts, the polity accords with the systems model of nature. So my social contract does not represent the exit from the state of nature, but the return to it. It contrasts with the previous social contract story in certain vital respects.
First, the earlier philosophers asserted that the polity was an artificial creation of all the people who entered into the social contract. That narrative preserved a “natural” sphere of life, distinct from the polity, in which people retained their natural unlimited freedom. Within the political realm citizens were subject to the rule of institutions and laws, but otherwise they enjoyed freedom to do as they liked with such unconstrained freedom being protected by the polity. In a natural system, however, there is no distinction between natural and artificial components. The whole is indivisible with its parts which have multiple natural aspects, for example, people’s private, spiritual and political functions. Our thinkers’ master of logic Aristotle had in fact said, “Man is by nature a political animal.”27My social contract undergirds a polity modeled on nature which has no need to drive a wedge between the civic realm and others, as each person is a whole human individual and an organic part of the whole living community.
Another respect in which my view of the polity as a natural system differs from the classical one is in regard to the origin. The latter characterized people as being by nature unorganized individuals, but there is invariably not only order but systematic order in nature. Humans are social animals, and their groups, even mobs, always exhibit some organization. The primary questions are which system dominates and to what extent does it does it support and sustain human life. For a battlefield littered with dead and dying soldiers is something of a natural system teeming with vultures, flies and bacteria. Moreover, at a minimum everything in the biosphere is a part of that total system, so there is also the issue of boundaries for the polity.
To elaborate my conception of the polity as a natural living system, I offer an analogy with the human body, comparing individual persons to individual cells. In the body there are systems such as the circulatory system which has a certain structure but in whose function every cell participates. They all receive oxygen and nutrients while disposing of wastes via that structure which also provides the means to protect cells from disease and to heal them if they are harmed. Different cells primarily belong to different systems, but their functions are all integrated into the whole system, with all functioning to sustain themselves, each other and the whole. The system that correlates to government is the nervous system which is literally the nerve center of the body that coordinates diverse functions, is the repository of habits and makes decisions. In addition, it performs an enforcement function for the body which is pain. The feeling or threat of pain is a signal for the body to avoid certain actions which if committed would be punished with pain.
Comparing the government of a community to the nervous system of a body, it is seen that as long as the body lives, unless on artificial life-support, that system functions to some degree. So with government: it may be very corrupt or even so deranged that it amounts to virtual anarchy. Moreover, as long as a body or a community live, they are systems which also may be in very damaged, degraded or corrupted states. Impaired parts no longer function in support of other parts, but possibly in opposition to them. Failure to heal tends to produce a cascading effect among parts that causes more damage and ultimately death of the body.
For the body to live and perform all its functions its parts must properly function, that is, be healthy. Likewise with a community which is a living system. The community as a whole is in good condition insofar as its parts which consist of its members, are also in good condition. Government serves to coordinate the functioning of the parts to maintain their health and that of the whole, and it is good government insofar as it is successful in doing this. In my model the most immediate level of government is local participatory democracy which corresponds in a body to the ultimate participation of every cell in the functioning of the nervous system. With government the relationship is not totally reciprocal because it has distinct enforcement authority over the parts.
Although participatory democracy includes some officials in addition to all the actively engaged citizens, ultimately the government is the people who ideally have no need for heavy official regulation and policing of themselves. A formal structure of laws, justice and enforcement does exist, but the well-being of the community is sustained by what Rousseau called, after the three conventional kinds of laws – fundamental, civil and criminal, the fourth
…the most important of all. It is engraved in neither marble nor brass, but in the hearts of its citizens; it forms the true constitution of the state: it renews its vigor every day, and when other laws become obsolete or ineffective, it restores or replaces them; it keeps the people in the spirit of its institutions, and gradually substitutes the force of habit for that of authority. I am referring to morals, customs, and above all, public opinion. This category of laws is unknown to our political theorists, but it is essential to the success of all the others; the great lawgiver concerns himself with it in secret, while seeming to limit himself to specific regulations that are only the sides of the arch, whereas morals, slower to develop, eventually form its unshakable keystone.28
I have presented a picture of the ideal democracy in which all the people continuously uphold the social contract that I have described. In the original story the social contract was a once and done affair that established the government as a distinct entity with authority over the people. Compared with that model my version which focuses on individual citizens’ continuous responsibility initially appears rather loose and informal. I will therefore now fill in some details which make it firmer and address human imperfection. Returning to my analogy with the body I want to stress that while the whole is ultimately indivisible, its systems, the nervous system in particular, function in an orderly fashion. Likewise, there is structure and orderly process in government, that is, rule according to law. Meanwhile, humans are unlike cells in the body in that they can choose whether or not to act in the interest of the community and even in their own self-interest. In the Christian tradition this distinction has been attributed to man’s free will. Aristotle, who was fundamentally a biologist, saw natural variation among members of the same species, finding some imperfect in a multitude of different ways. His science reflected the general view of the Greeks who were notable for their great attention to education to not only remedy human deficiencies but to nurture excellence.
Like the original one-time social contract, my continuously renewed one is completely voluntary. It is people’s ongoing commitment to each other to support the proper operation of their government, which is a function of all the citizens some of whom are officials. This contrasts with a current misconception of the social contract – that it is a unilateral obligation of the government to the people. Although my ideal social contract is a commitment of each individual with every other individual, in reality it is likely to only be such a pledge between some individuals and some others. Hopefully this includes most of them and all of the officials. Their engagement does entail an obligation to seek to include all of the people in the commitment. While in my analogy the nervous system is the principal one coordinating all the others, this function is in fact somewhat shared by the others. Similarly, insofar as the people are the government, it is their adherence to the social contract that keeps the community functioning well overall.
Within living systems some parts inevitably fail. My social contract involves a responsibility to restore such parts to their proper function. Criminals, for example, must be rehabilitated. There will also be irreparable defects which may be congenital or acquired which living systems naturally deal with. If someone loses the use of their right hand, they will adapt by making new use of their left and other parts of their body. Assistance to disabled people is therefore an obligation under my social contract, along with effort to prevent people from not joining the contract, violating it or becoming unable to honor it.
In reality the effect of my social contract is a matter of degree – how many people commit to it and how thoroughly they do so. This commitment is also the measure of the legitimacy of the government of which it is the foundation. Indeed, this is the measure of the legitimacy of any democratic government. Turning again to my analogy with the body we know that the health of a body is a matter of degree and probably none can be judged to be in perfect health. Imperfection is obviously inevitable, but like a body, the polity must guard against threats to its deterioration, recognizing that the failure of any part threatens or impairs all the other parts and the whole. This fact is vividly illustrated in the spread of COVID-19 by people who refuse to follow public health safety practices.
So far my account of the new social contract has only defined it in terms of a natural system. Also included in the original story were declarations that all humans are equal and they possess certain fundamental freedoms. The systems model of nature establishes human equality on the ground that people are living units of a single kind that all together constitute the community. Being parts of that community involves them exercising their common rationality as officially equal citizens in the democratic government of the polity. Like cells in a body that all ultimately participate in systems, notably the nervous system, people are all parts of the polity whose function is to ensure the well-being of every part and the whole indivisible body. Regarding freedom, my model gives the highest priority to the freedom to live. In today’s neoliberal system, which is the wreckage of classical liberal democracy, people’s right to life is infringed upon in a multitude of ways. It wasn’t so long ago that broad environmental, labor and civil rights protections were in effect, and they now need to be not only restored but strengthened. My social contract significantly increases people’s freedom from what it is now. For one thing it secures the freedom for everyone to fully participate in collective self-government which ensures each citizen’s rational autonomy and freedom from factions. I will show in the next section that it ultimately provides everyone the freedom to realize the range of their potential and further that it frees people from injury and oppression by others as it simultaneously frees the perpetrators from the compulsion to commit such acts. Finally it frees people to affirm life, overcome alienation and to reject inauthenticity and banality.
Government isn’t the whole story because, as I have indicated in my historical review, particular models of political economy have furnished the conditions for the exercise of first liberal, then neoliberal freedom. Of course this last is not freedom at all but slavery in innumerable respects. The new social contract requires a new political economy which provides the material framework for people to live full lives as essential parts of so many living systems and thus enjoy maximum human freedom. I now turn to a description of that model, emphasizing that it embodies the ideal democracy. Initially presenting it as a utopia or vision to guide our action I then bring it down to earth by urging the implementation of several proposals on the table now. Preempting the likely objection that it is utopian, I remind the reader that all the models I have discussed – classical liberal political philosophy, classical liberal political economy, neoliberalism, not to mention the Founders’ vision – are all pictures of perfect systems that have never been fully realized and never will be. They serve, however the indispensable function of providing goals to strive toward, enabling people to map and follow routes to get as close as they can to the destination.
A New Political Economy
My method is reason in the service of life. Climate change and colossal environmental destruction are urgent existential threats underway now which demand an all-out global effort to reverse the trend. A plan for global sustainability created by David C. Korten, founder and editor of Yes! magazine, is presented in his Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. He asserts that significant degrowth is required to establish a new economic system consisting of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”29 A key element in his agenda is changing the way that money is created. Presently it originates as debt, compelling businesses to always be expanding, increasing their revenue and incurring more debt in order to pay off the principal and interest of the earlier debt. This process, he declares, creates an inexorable growth imperative. His book focuses on the economic aspects of the model, so my purpose now is to explain how his concept embodies the systematic character of life and therefore provides the economic structure for democracy and freedom in the future.
As the Founders were crafting a government for the nation Thomas Jefferson found in the town meeting democracy of New England “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.”30 Decades later de Toqueville observed democracy in America flourishing particularly in small towns. Where people live is their principal habitat, providing the real estate which they either own or rent, their water and air. It is also where they vote to elect local, state and national officials. Civic life for better or worse is rooted in the community, and for this reason should be its focal point.
Bowling Alone explores the array of ways in which community life in America has lost the cohesiveness that de Toqueville judged was essential for democracy. That consisted in vigorous civil society with a multitude of local organizations and amiable social relationships. Korten’s model is the means for restoring that. His local productive and sustainable economies serve local consumers and rely on small locally owned businesses which should also be mostly employee-owned. In them there is little wealth inequality. Overall, human interaction is community-centered and therefore diametrically opposed to the current state in which most people commute, sometimes far away, to work and likewise travel out of their communities for shopping and entertainment. Presently people know few, if any, other people who live around them; their lives are geographically scattered and, as neoliberal bundles of enterprises, fragmented and conflicted. One of the primary impacts of the competitive global neoliberal economy is the destruction of local economies as people are now mostly employed by entities in the system that contribute to growing global business consolidation, inequality, deterioration of public services and infrastructure. This system has immediate negative environmental effects on everyone. Whether they commute to work, are employed in a fossil fuel-related industry, sell imported or plastic-packaged goods or do any other kind of work, everyone is a part of the climate change and environmental problems. In the sustainable community, people cease to harm themselves and their families as they earn their livings.
Not only does work in the neoliberal system serve to maintain and grow that system, it has scant meaning and provides little or no satisfaction for people. Mostly people work to earn the money which they then spend in the consumer economy for necessities plus goods and services to gratify desires created by marketing. This highly artificial system with its extreme division of labor contrasts with the character of living systems in which every function directly serves life and virtually all potential functions are actualized. In the life-centered economy I am describing people’s work is diversified. Marx envisioned an economy in which one might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner . . . without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.”31 My model further promotes craftsmanship, in which a worker creates their product from start to finish and, as Marx also said, “sees himself” in the result.32 Finally it includes much meaningful, indeed essential, non-work activity for everyone.
In our time extreme division of labor is defended as providing for the fulfillment of individual potential epitomized by Mozart or Shakespeare. Frank and Cooke point out that the best-selling authors of our time are the likes of Danielle Steele who owes her success to promoters in a rigged market. Shakespeare, whose literary genius has never since been surpassed, lived long before culture became dominated by big business and institutions. It has been noted that the Bard, who had only seven years of formal education, would today be hopelessly lacking the credentials required to teach high school or college English. Historically many of the greatest people excelled in diverse fields. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.
One of the chief human potentialities to be more fully actualized in the new order is everyone’s faculty of reason. Currently people’s minds are occupied with micro-specialized work and consumer activity, especially forms involving media. The followers of Locke’s brand of liberalism reserved the light of reason mostly for the republic’s officials, assuming that it would break forth among the citizenry should it fail those leaders. In Rousseau’s model state citizens governed themselves with the exercise of universal rationality. Under my proposed social contract citizens make rational decisions with reference to themselves as private individuals and as parts of their community. At the same time these decisions reflect their interests as citizens who are parts of the polity. Finally, vital consideration is given to the larger living wholes of which their community and polity form parts.
My understanding of the way of nature that puts life first draws very different conclusions than those of classical liberalism. While they agree on human equality, mine asserts that people’s essential functions are to serve themselves and their community, ultimately the world. Further, in virtue of the human faculty of reason, nature points to government chiefly by participatory democracy. Korten’s sustainable community model, which is now necessary for human survival, is the perfect structure for it.
Participatory democracy is in fact alive and well today in Vermont town halls. By state law all municipalities hold them one day each year. All registered voters may attend, elect local officials and vote on municipal and school policies and budgets. Drawing on data collected over decades at hundreds of town meetings Frank M. Bryan concludes that real democracy requires small jurisdictions and in-person assemblies. He notes that town halls have passed resolutions supporting the ERA and a nuclear weapons freeze, and majorities in many of the rural communities vote for Bernie Sanders. In them there is real debate over matters, which may become heated, but after the town hall people return to their normal and usually close interaction where civility prevails.33
For the same reason that each individual has a role as a citizen in their community, they also have roles as citizens of larger political units. The sustainable communities in the model are not isolated and closed but rather have economic and political interconnections. Larger jurisdictions cannot practically operate by participatory democracy and thus require representative democracy which still provides for a high level of citizen engagement. Not only to restore the environment but also for human well-being this model must be implemented globally, the product of an international people’s movement which establishes some measure of global governance as well.
Up to this point I have mostly described the world as so many three-dimensional systems. Yet as I indicated earlier, the fourth dimension, time, is perhaps the most important one for life. To live is to continue to live, both for individuals and systems. Sustainability does not simply mean enduring over some time, it means persisting within nature’s scale of time – very many generations and ultimately eons. Sustainable communities therefore operate with an indefinitely long-term outlook that also applies to their governance. Our classical liberal political philosophers and the Founders devoted particular attention to the means by which their models of government would persist. As nature is trans-generational, so are polities, thus as each generation must conserve natural resources for future ones, so must they act to preserve their democracy.
Much of our present trouble can be traced to the current attitude toward time. As he has decried the liquid quality of human relationships, Bauman has highlighted how the modern short-term perspective now approaches instantaneity, an orientation he calls “pointillist time.”34 This is certainly a product of consumer culture and its premier marketing instrument media. The infosphere disseminates items to be consumed now which will be displaced by new ones later today, possibly only seconds later, or certainly by tomorrow. Brands continually push short-lived hot products as well. All of this is marketed especially by the biggest players with the objective of maintaining consumers in a state of intense stimulation and craving the next new sensation.
Ideas are no exception to this regime with a simple example being the Bush to Obama voters in 2008 and the Obama to Trump voters in 2016. In our time ideas are consumer fads mostly pitched in winner-take-all or at least rigged markets. Ever-shrinking turnaround time reduces the content of communication, which is increasingly measured in mere numbers of characters. Much material is therefore just ephemeral bytes hurled against the backdrop of the neoliberal system. Insofar as they arise at all, big elaborate ideas are pulverized into dust and rapidly blown away.
The model of sustainability that I advocate is a comprehensive vision that calls for people to grasp it fully and make a long-term commitment to bringing it about. This places me outside the neoliberal marketplace of ideas and denies me the validation of the market which the agents who manage it attribute to the “wisdom of the crowd.” Absence of their blessing is actually proof that my model liberates people from the tyranny of neoliberalism’s idea market and restores their rational autonomy.
As they enjoy independence of thought the considerable self-sufficiency of local communities in my proposal also makes their members interdependent in a multitude of respects. Such range and diversity of community interaction is the very thing that de Toqueville identified as the crucial ingredient in America’s democracy and the feature whose absence Putnam claimed had virtually destroyed it by the year 2000. Now, as in 2021 the threat of fascism is high, we urgently need to create inclusive multi-dimensional human bonds within a system of green participatory democracy.
Presently there are two basic views of government: those on the Left say, “Government works for you,” while those on the Right say, “Government suppresses our freedom.” Both define government as separate from the people who, in the first case, constitute consumers of services provided by the government and in the second represent victims of government abuse. In my view both are wrong, for I maintain that government is the people. Participatory democracy is all the people together making public decisions. This means every person participating as an independent citizen and not as a member of an interest group or faction. For as each citizen is a constituent part of the governing body their citizenship is an aspect of the unitary living person who has multiple functions and, in their capacity as a citizen, serve their several interests. This further means being parts of other living systems and therefore serving the interests of those as well. The community itself is one such system which includes organic parts, intersects with other systems and forms parts of larger ones. As citizens individuals therefore serve all of those in addition to themselves. With their diverse functions and particular positions in space and time they all have unique, though intersecting and interdependent perspectives which they express in the exercise of participatory democracy. They also privately function as organic parts of the community and larger living systems, observing the morality of which Rousseau spoke as they act to sustain themselves, the community, the polity and the world.
One of the defects of interest group politics and citizenship by proxy is that they reduce people to uniform numbers, which they are in their capacity as members of particular identity groups. Such depersonalization, indeed profiling, has spurred two forms of reaction. Groups now often spotlight personal stories in which members relate their individual experiences relative to the groups’ specific purposes. Meanwhile, Blacks involved in the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter have argued that women’s experience differs significantly for Blacks and whites and that there are many other issues intertwined with the single one of police murdering Blacks. They have laid bare the system of racism that affects every person through education, employment, healthcare, housing and more. All these different strands of the whole fabric intersect in every individual, oppressing Blacks and conferring privilege on whites. As they affect each person they are at the same time public issues for each citizen who should therefore participate in regard to all the individual, shared, simple and complex issues in their personal and public lives.
The sustainable world I am describing is an ideal in which citizens resolve issues through formal democratic processes. Yet as Rousseau, de Toqueville and Putnam stress, much of the practice of democracy is informal – social interaction in a variety of contexts. Having immediate vital stakes in the community, people naturally talk about matters among themselves. This is a necessarily universal activity not only to realize people’s full citizenship but to reduce division. John Stuart Mill believed that liberty required conversation between people who disagreed.35 Vance Packard’s 1958 The Status Seekers describes how patterns of socialization at that time divided people. In regard to Jews he observed that the best mixed relationships were between people who visited each other in their homes as friends. He wrote, “Personal friendship appears to be a more powerful motive than any abstract sense of justice in getting barriers removed. And friendship can take root only where there is informal intermingling.”36 Democracy makes citizens equal, and green democracy under my social contract ensures economic security for all while eliminating significant wealth inequality. At the same time racial, ethnic and cultural variety is essential in communities, just as resilience of natural systems requires rich diversity of species. Packard lamented the dull sameness of American social groupings which tends toward insularity and intolerance.
How people talk to each other in the informal and formal practice of my green democracy is quite different from the present one-dimensional manner. Apart from dogmatic sound bytes, public discourse is woefully fragmented. To give one example, consideration of transportation tends to be just about roads and the current modes, so highway expansion continues unabated. Regard for climate isn’t part of that conversation except insofar as it includes electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, both of which would ultimately require a vast supply of energy, only a fraction of which could be produced from renewable sources. Marcuse contrasted the one-dimensional form with dialectical discourse à la Hegel and Marx that seeks out contradictions in understanding as well as Plato’s more eclectic style. He took particular issue with Aristotelian logic which has dominated Western thought for millennia and profoundly shaped Enlightenment thought. Rational discourse in green democracy must be thoroughly logical, but its chief distinction is its very broad scope. It doesn’t isolate topics, but looks far, wide and deep to find the connections between them. In our current system the vehicles of public policy are legislative bills, executive orders and judicial decisions, the vast majority of which are very narrowly focused. Multi-purpose actions mostly aim to balance the gains and losses of opposing interest groups. Rarely, if ever, do we see officials advancing creative and unitary solutions that satisfy everyone. Our adversarial politics has the effect of making the condition that created the conflict continually worse. That condition is precisely the total system’s thoroughgoing non-sustainability, which multidimensional rationality that puts life first overcomes.
In addition to being extremely limited in range, conversation today has a disagreeably impersonal character. We find that, as Henry Miller said, “We do not talk – we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.”37 Then there is the conceit of “critical discourse,” that detached, disembodied style standard in the academy and professions which has a particularly universal and authoritarian tone. The discourse of green democracy is dialogue, which is the respectful exchange of information and ideas. In dialogue, Nietzsche said, everything that one says is “…in strict consideration of the other person to whom he is speaking…” It sharply contrasts with the common performative style in which “…it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: ‘That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!’”38
Rational discourse and decision-making in green democracy further depends on true information. Our current vast universe of information is a product of the total neoliberal system, and though a great deal of it is superfluous or harmful, much of it would be valuable, even vital to the green democracy. Shifting to the new order requires that we discard the unsustainable apparatus while retaining and improving upon what serves us. From the start of the Industrial Revolution humans have allowed technology to become the master which enslaves them. The very idea of rationality however demands that people can and must control technology for the good of man and now all of life. Managing information is but one area in which people must determine what is the optimum scale of human activity in the future.
Apart from physiological impairment all humans possess the faculty of reason, but how they use it depends on education. The current state of the world, America in particular, is a miserable commentary on our educational practices. Alongside our public education there is a good amount of private education that includes evangelical religious instruction which promotes zealotry àla Betsy DeVos and Amy Coney Barrett. K-12 and higher education in general are, as Henry Giroux has maintained, quintessential neoliberal structures whose primary function is to program people to participate in the competitive neoliberal economy, selecting some and eliminating others. The abysmal level of civic awareness and involvement among young people speaks volumes about the system’s priorities. Such disengagement is also reinforced by the segregation of formal education from the rest of society.
In the green community there is much integration of functions such as that advocated by Grace Lee Boggs who led the effort to establish a neighborhood economy in Detroit following the 1967 riots. She urged including students in the community’s productive and civic activities, indeed enlisting “the tremendous energies and creativity of schoolchildren in rebuilding and respirating our communities and our cities now, in the present.”39 Although Rousseau the romantic believed in inherent human virtue and wisdom, giving Émile the subtitle On Education, there is certainly a substantial place for academic instruction in skills, content and values that prepares students for full participation in green participatory democracy. I have outlined this new order, which I confess is an ideal, but which must be our guiding vision as we strive to save human life, democracy and the planet. Obviously change will take time, so, having defined our destination, the next step is to decide how to approach it. The number one priority must be to forever keep the goal in view. Presently there are innumerable limited projects aiming at greater democracy and sustainability, but they don’t add up to a single vision, much less the one that I have presented as necessary. Many of these conflict and further involve major concessions, reflecting the persistence of one-dimensional thinking. A prime example is the objective of 100% renewable energy that omits the fact that solar equipment manufacture currently relies on scarce natural materials and generates much toxic waste. Its scenario also leaves everything else untouched, that is, the rest of the planet-killing human environmental footprint. Declaring that the climate crisis “changes everything,” Naomi Klein is one of a growing number of thinkers who insist that we must remake the whole system.
With our destination always in mind, we may proceed to lay out the pathway to it. Urgent climate action is imperative, and the most sensible immediate course of action is the Green New Deal. One of its many virtues is that it employs Modern Monetary Theory for its funding, thus meeting Korten’s objection to borrowing money into existence. MMT has the federal government create money to invest in such things as infrastructure, healthcare and education. Although the 2020 election has somewhat dimmed the prospects of the GND and disclosed a fairly benighted electorate, the bright spots are some cities and towns, especially those that have embarked on local initiatives for clean energy such as Ready for 100.
As the federal government remains relatively conservative, that reality continues to shape citizens’ attitudes toward it. Gridlock or regression at the national level impel local action, and this is the premier advantage of green participatory democracy. When it comes to their water, their land and their air, people of all political persuasions tend to support conservation and their local government’s protection of these resources. Grassroots activists now firmly understand that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations between community members who share their individual difficulties and can organize for collective resolution.
This brings us to the practical first step: people talking to each other rationally and multi-dimensionally. Changing the culture to make this widespread and routine requires getting the next generation on the right track with innovation in education. The other major challenge to this plan is the identity group and formal organization mentality. Racial and ethnic groups are more trusting of their own, and organizations are often narrowly-focused cloakroom communities. Thankfully there is a now a surge of leaders of color moving to elevate their followers to full and permanent civic engagement. Insofar as groups have limited objectives, they must advance to coordinating with each other for unitary changes that benefit all.
Issues that communities can unite on are water, air, land and energy. In his 2015 documentary Time to Choose Charles Ferguson declared that the number one global threat of climate change is the loss of clean fresh water. From widespread lead pollution exposed following the Flint disaster to persistent extreme drought in western states, oil pipelines, fracking, PFAS and more, local water supplies need citizens’ attention now. Meanwhile the pandemic lockdown revealed how much business as usual pollutes our air and damages our health. There are many things that communities can do to reduce their air pollution, which has the worst impacts on poor people of color. The issue of land relates to land use and housing, with concern for the last starting to explode as an eviction crisis unfurls. Land is earth, which is the source of our food. To address growing food insecurity people must boost local food production which may include community gardens and urban farms. With the recent massive Russian hack we are reminded of the extreme vulnerability of our electrical grid and the urgent need to decentralize generation and transmission, therefore making now the perfect time to shift to local green energy. The foregoing are issues for which citizens can come together immediately to move toward green participatory democracy.
Another high priority is electing enlightened people to office, starting at the lowest level and moving them up the ladder to higher positions. Republicans have long surpassed Democrats in recruiting candidates. Since 2016 Democrats have become better but still need improvement in the way of cultivating the right values in them as well as the voters. As we see with Trump, Bernie Sanders and Biden, leadership is worth a lot as people are inclined to uncritically follow the person in the spotlight. It is vital to elect candidates committed to green democracy while building support for it among voters through grassroots activity.
Ours is an extremely challenging time, for as we progress toward our vision there is enormous defensive work to do as well. Following the record voter turnout of 2020 Republicans are determined to heavily suppress the vote in future elections. Also on their agenda are rigging the next redistricting and obtaining extreme right-wing Supreme Court decisions. To achieve progressive goals we must defeat these attempts, fighting on several fronts at once. This is yet another reason why people should understand separate issues as parts of one big picture.
Until we get beyond adversarial democracy with warring interest groups dominated by lobbyists and big campaign donors we must unite on the urgent priorities. This does not mean abandoning the agenda I have set out but paying attention to the details to ensure that we keep on track. Thus, for example, while unions require solidarity vis-à-vis management in the short term, their ultimate goal should be worker-owned enterprise. This is an objective that can be pursued by workers at every level now. So much responsibility and power have been given to the federal government, and as media consolidation and loss of local coverage have magnified its stature, people mostly look to it for answers. At present we do need major action by the federal government, but we must also recognize that it is like the figure in the book of Daniel which has a head of gold and feet of clay. One man nearly caused it to topple! Real progress requires transforming the culture, and this involves changing citizens’ fundamental understanding of freedom. Margaret Thatcher knew this well, saying of her neoliberal program, “the object is to change the heart and soul.”40
The federal government – the creation of the Founders – needs serious repair. My critique of their efforts does not imply that that we should ditch the Constitution. On the contrary, we mostly need to restore some implicit original limits and expand others. Too many fundamental rights have been stretched beyond recognition, for example, money is speech, corporate personhood, restricting the use of property is “taking” property, owning AK-47s is protected by the Second Amendment and so forth. These are just a few prominent examples of how the original understanding of freedom has come to undermine true freedom. The local participatory democracy that I have advocated would obviously depend on federal and state laws as well as international agreements reciprocally conditioned by robust democracy across the country and the world. There is much fundamental law-making potential, for example green amendments to state constitutions and community bills of rights. In our country there is a tradition of protecting the government from the people to the point of aggressively excluding them from it. Our predecessors were doubtful that civic virtue might prevail within the population and went to considerable lengths to establish institutional safeguards. Yet their basic conception of freedom was the genie they released from the bottle that has lately almost destroyed the whole shebang. With widespread corruption among leaders, especially those who enslave their followers with Orwellian representations of freedom, it is up to the people to mount a full-spectrum mobilization to secure real freedom now.
The triple crisis of our time – climate change, pandemic and subversion of democracy – is the long-term consequence of basing our political order on the classical liberal view of freedom. Persistent and growing assault on people’s lives and rights as citizens amounts to anything but liberty. I have shown that at present people are further enslaved by their identification with branded identity groups, which ultimately includes the total neoliberal system. As a guarantor of freedom the Founders’ approach is obsolete. I have offered an updated view of freedom that entails a particular model of economic and political organization. The economic structure provides a response to climate change and urgent environmental threats overall including zoonotic disease. It is a model for long-term sustainability, assuring people the most essential freedom to live. This structure further supports the maximum freedom of citizens to govern themselves through robust democracy.
For Locke the social contract was formed in the dim and distant mythical past, granting citizens the right to overthrow a government that violated it. Rousseau, in contrast, saw it as enduring but requiring people to continually honor it in the day-to-day practice of democracy. Waiting to repair a system until it is utterly broken is no way to operate a government. In reality people expect the social contract to be continuously upheld, and the way to make this happen is for the people to themselves actively be the government.
The fatal flaw of the original social contract story was its claim that the human animal possesses virtually unlimited God-given natural freedom or rights over which the contract imposed only slight specific legal restrictions. It was the product of an historical period that was rapidly expanding individual opportunities on a vast scale. That trend has continued up to our time, culminating in today’s nihilistic demands for personal freedom. Inflamed by Trump, slaves to right-wing extremist ideology have become militant in their determination to share the unbounded freedom that he flaunts which now infamously includes freedom from retribution for his crimes.
In my account of freedom there are no individual natural rights of any kind given by God, existing in a pre-civilized state or acquired at birth. Rather, there is the fact of life which imposes certain conditions on human existence. Freedom consists in living with these conditions being fulfilled, for example, breathing clean air and drinking clean water, plus creating and maintaining the conditions for life by engaging in sustainable economic activity and robust democracy. The historic social contract version makes the private exercise of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness primary. This has led many people to profoundly neglect or totally ignore their responsibility as citizens to ensure that their government represents and serves them, having instead, in Gibbon’s words, “insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.”41 My approach makes it absolutely clear that freedom necessarily entails full civic engagement.
The recent Supreme Court decisions that prioritize religious freedom over public health in the pandemic are stunning illustrations of the inverted values of our time. For me the purpose of political freedom is to secure life. I have mentioned slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Water Is Life,” but who can doubt that life is the highest consideration for most people? The premier issue in the 2000 presidential election was Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, and Obama won in 2008 with “quality affordable healthcare for all.” Trump promised a healthcare plan to replace Obamacare in 2016, then Biden won by focusing attention on the pandemic. With the economic damage from the disease the necessities of life, specifically food and housing, are also now major issues.
That life should be the objective of freedom goes without question. I have explained that we are not to view life as bare individual survival, but rather as broad and full, that is, also involving sustaining the environment and actualizing the range of human potentiality. The latter especially means rational thinking and robust civic engagement. One lives freely to the extent that they are an active citizen applying their rational faculties to the affairs of a sustainable and democratic polity. Still, citizenship is not possible as a solo act but requires numbers of citizens finding or establishing agreement plus dialogue with the rest. One-dimensional speech and thought must be set aside to achieve comprehensive and creative public policies. The highest freedom consists precisely in citizens first talking, then working together in the interest of all of their lives and all of life.
I have sketched the ideal political economic structure for restoring democracy and freedom, addressing climate change and the present environmental devastation, concluding with some specific steps to take toward it. As I write, defenders of the status quo and slaves to the Trump brand remain resolute, even emboldened, making our situation both complicated and dire. Attention to our local communities is critical in this time of near iron-clad loyalty to political brands. People on opposing sides do unite over an array of local issues, and such association provides opportunity to establish human connections and broader dialogue. An increasingly valuable tool in electoral campaigns is friend to friend communication. With the 2021 election cycle beginning and 2022 approaching this technique will be vital for penetrating brand barriers in individuals’ networks. There remains the obstacle of people’s availability, as their time is taken up with work, commuting, attention to family and recovery from the grind that crushes their spirit. This is no accident but rather a core strategy for keeping people in bondage to the masters of global neoliberalism. It also divides us and keeps our attention on ourselves, the present and immediate gratification. But people must mind the warning that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. They must break free from all the branded mindsets and recognize the extreme urgency of stepping forward in their communities, reaching out to their neighbors and asserting themselves as citizens, collectively as the sovereign, to secure the future of their children, their homes, humanity, the planet, our democracy and freedom.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher. Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights. She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania.
In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard.
This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process. She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders.
Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.