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Philosophy and the Environment

Ecological Hermeneutics

David R. Keller
Utah Valley State College

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ABSTRACT: To what extent does Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theory of science provide a basis for the articulation of an ecological hermeneutics? As "hermeneutics" is the art of interpretation and understanding, "ecological hermeneutics" is understood as the act of interpreting the impact of technology within the lifeworld. I consider the potential for ecological hermeneutics based upon Gadamer’s theory of science. First, I outline his theory of science. Second, I delineate ecological hermeneutics as an application of this theory. Third, I discuss what can be expected from the act of ecological hermeneutics. Finally, I make some general comments about the affinity between ecological hermeneutics and brute common-sense.

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Our question is: to what extent does Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theory of science provide a basis for an articulation of an ecological hermeneutics? As "hermeneutics" is the art or activity of interpretation and understanding, "ecological hermeneutics" is to be understood as the activity of interpreting the impact of uses of technology within the context of the lifeworld. (1) Our considerations of the uses of technology (2) include the spheres of scientific research on one hand and industrial production processes on the other, specifically capitalism. The similarity which makes these two spheres felicitous to ecological hermeneutics is their respective detachment from the lifeworld, a detachment which characterizes each of their decision procedures.

Gadamer’s hermeneutic enterprise is modeled on a retrieval of the Aristotelian model of science which calls into question the modern notion of ratiocination detached a priori from experience, from the lifeworld. Through this hermeneutic enterprise Gadamer develops a theory of science which questions the idea that a human being can be epistemologically detached from the lifeworld, objectively observing it. This modern view Gadamer sees as a dangerous affirmation of disembodied theory from experience (viz., practice in the lifeworld). In response to modern science Gadamer develops his own contramodern theory of science. The problem with the modern ideal of science, as Gadamer sees it, is that in an effort to remain "objective" science often carries on a project because the technical expertise exists to enable it to be done. But what about the question should it be done? Just because a scientist can splice genes, does that mean a scientist should splice genes? As Gadamer asks, "For whose benefit is the work being accomplished? And how much do the achievements of technology serve life?" (3) Ecological hermeneutics endeavors to answer such questions.

The purpose of this paper is to consider the potential for ecological hermeneutics based on Gadamer’s theory of science. First we will outline his theory of science and its implications on the modern notion of science. Second, we will delineate ecological hermeneutics as an application of this theory of science. Third we will consider what we can expect from the activity of ecological hermeneutics. Fourth and finally we will stand back and make some general comments about the affinity between ecological hermeneutics and shear common-sense.


Let’s recall the claim of modern Cartesian science (which modern science is modeled after): pure reason is detached from the corporeal world, objectively observing it. Modern science holds that one can understand a priori the experience of some phenomenon. The technique of, say, physics, is objectified in a theory, (4) distinct and untainted by subjectivity. Thus modern science is built upon a notion of a fundamental separation of objective theory from subjective practice. This putative separation gives the natural sciences an objectivity which the human sciences (the humanities) lack.

The Aristotelian worldview which Gadamer retrieves is fundamentally different from this modern view; it assumes reason is not detached but rather is part of the lifeworld. Aristotelian science assumes an experiential base and then attempts to account for this base. In the human sciences such as ethics and politics, the normative arises from the descriptive, the "ought" arises from the "is." Whereas modern science holds that (a) one can move from a pure theory to practice, Aristotelian science holds that (b) we must always move from practice to a theoretical awareness of that practice. Gadamer explains:

As far as hermeneutics is concerned it is quite to the point to confront [a] the separation of theory from practice entailed in the modern notion of theoretical science and practical-technical application with [b] an idea of knowledge that has taken the opposite path leading from practice toward making it aware of itself theoretically. (5)

The Aristotelian model of science ultimately provides Gadamer with a theory of science as a solution to the problematic divorce of practice from theory in modern science. This theory says that we cannot move from a pure theory to practice, but must always move from an activity to a theoretical awareness of that activity. All understanding, all knowledge, arises from one’s own experience.

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Suppose that there was some person living in Athens, Georgia — say a destitute mechanical engineering graduate student — who became completely enthralled with the notion of alpine skiing. Unfortunately this student had never been able get to the Appalachians of Tennessee and North Carolina to ski, let alone the Rockies or the Alps. The more this student learned about skiing, talking to people in the local watering hole who had skied and reading magazines and books about skiing, the more this student became obsessed with the idea of becoming an excellent skier. In preparation for the day he could go skiing, this student read every book on every aspect of skiing imaginable: magazines on the specification of the latest equipment, PSIA (Professional Ski Instructor of America) ski instruction manuals, books on different kinds of snow and avalanche conditions, books on ski physiology, books on ski tuning, waxing, binding adjustment, etc. At spring break in Florida one year this student buys a winning lottery ticket, and suddenly is able to afford all the state-of-the-art ski equipment and fly to Snowbird, Utah, where the snow conditions are currently the best. Before his first day on the slopes, our friend meticulously files his edges, buffs the bases to perfection, detunes the tips and tails 4, adjusts and checks the binding function. Everything is mechanically impeccable. He also rereads all his skiing manuals, making sure he has memorized the sequence of every bodily movement in making a correct ski turn. Our intrepid adventurer, confident of his vast technical knowledge of the art of snow skiing, takes the tram up 3,000 feet to Hidden Peak (just over 11,000 feet), detrams, deftly prepares all his equipment for the journey down, and, turning the tips downhill and letting gravity do the work from there — immediately catches an edge and does a body throw into the snow. Still confident of his ability, he tries again. And falls. Repeatedly. He realizes with all the theoretical knowledge and technical expertise he has he cannot become an excellent skier without skiing a lot — for years. So he moves from Athens to Snowbird, and after hundreds of days on the slopes, he begins to understand what all the books and magazines he had read before he skied for the first time meant. From the experiential base he develops from the activity of skiing, he gains a heightened theoretical awareness of all the multitudinous nuances of being an excellent skier. When it comes to skiing, excellence can only be achieved through practice, and only a posteriori can one develop an awareness of all the subtle but nontrivial aspects the art of skiing entails.

The lesson is that objectified theory cannot be founded independently of subjective experience. We all bring the past experiences we have into the observations we make. In Gadamer’s words:

we are already shaped by the normative images or ideas in the light of which we have been brought up and that lie at the basis of our entire social life[.] The point here is a notion of science that does not allow for the ideal of the nonparticipating observer but endeavors instead to bring to our reflective awareness the communality that binds everyone together. (6)

Thus all of the customs, feelings, biases, prejudices (literally: pre-judgments) which each of us bring into our encounter in the lifeworld and our interpretation of our place in the lifeworld are the preconditions for the ability to experience. These prejudices do not close us from the world and incapacitate us from new experience; rather, they enable experience. Gadamer argues that

Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word, constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something — whereby what we encounter says something to us. (7)

Thus the ideal of the completely objective scientific chronicler is a chimera. Now we can clearly see one of Gadamer’s primary agendas: to debunk the epistemological Cartesian dichotomy between objective and subjective knowledge, and the derivative notion that objective theory is free of subjective practice. (8)

A poignant example of science attempting to operate from an objective standpoint independently of subjective lifeworld considerations was the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the 1940s. The project involved some of the world's most brilliant physicists who were excited about the advances being made in nuclear physics. But for some of those involved this excitement was short lived. One of the scientists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, told President Truman in 1948 he felt as though he had "blood on his hands." (9) Oppenheimer seems to have come to realize that the practice of nuclear detonation needs to be interpreted within the context of the lifeworld.

Gadamer's theory of science is a way of articulating this need to interpret all natural sciences in light of the human sciences, which is to say, through hermeneutical philosophy. Asserting this in a sense subjugates the natural sciences to the human sciences and rejects the former’s privileged status of objectivity — an assertion which many natural scientists find iconoclastic.


Ecological hermeneutics is an application of Gadamer’s theory of science to problems of contemporary environmental degradation. As such, its application has bearing in two spheres of the use of technology; on one hand, in research in the natural sciences, and on the other hand, in industrial production processes. (10) Of course both spheres are not absolutely distinct from one another. In many instances they overlap, as in the case of companies which carry on medical research for capitalistic gain.

As an application of this theory of science, ecological hermeneutics provides us with an environmentally sensitive decision procedure to distinguish justifiable uses of technology from unjustifiable uses in both of these spheres. A justifiable use of technology — in research or industry — is one that is consistent (or harmonious) with the lifeworld, and an unjustifiable use is one that is inconsistent (or inharmonious) with the lifeworld. From this definition it is easy to see ecological hermeneutics has similarities with Aldo Leopold's land ethic; actions are right when they "preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community," and wrong otherwise. (11)

Ecological hermeneutics, as a decision procedure, is like cost/benefit analysis in that it is consequentialist in essence. But the two are radically different; in the most basic terms, whereas the latter is primarily quantitative and atomistic, the former is more qualitative and holistic. Ecological hermeneutics does not attempt arrive at a common denominator in its decision procedure. Instead, ecological hermeneutics endeavors to interpret the uses of technology within the lifeworld. As we will see, interpreting the uses of technology is often in terms of degrees of harmony, since, as some environmental scientists have suggested, every human individual has a negative impact on the environment; (12) viz., no human activity might be totally harmonious with the lifeworld by virtue of being a human activity.

In relation to the sphere of scientific research, consider Oppenheimer again. As a nuclear physicist, at the outset he seemed to have been practicing science from the modern Cartesian stance. He and the other scientists were excited about the theoretical advances that could be made in the field, and in an attempt to be good objective natural scientists they did not want any extraneous social considerations to enter the picture of their research. But Oppenheimer appeared to have reevaluated his position. Without likely having thought about hermeneutics per se, Oppenheimer realized through his experiences at Los Alamos that his and other physicists’ narrow scope of technical knowledge should have been interpreted within the larger context of the lifeworld. He seemed to have realized that if he and the other Manhattan Project scientists would have considered the practice of thermonuclear detonation within the context of the lifeworld and not just from an a priori theoretical standpoint, it is likely their attitude towards the production of the atomic bomb would have been different.

As a decision procedure, ecological hermeneutics demands that in such situations the scientist must not merely do something because it can be done but must also ask, should it be done? Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we ought to do it; we must consider the implications of its use in the lifeworld. Because we can split atoms, should we split atoms? Ecological hermeneutics suggests that while the answer to the former question is affirmative, the answer to the second question is likely negative in light of our experiences with the high rate of leukemia in many towns downwind from the open air nuclear tests in Nevada, for instance. From the perspective of ecological hermeneutics, open air nuclear testing seems strikingly inharmonious — and thus unjustified — taken within the lifeworld.

As a decision procedure ecological hermeneutics also has bearing on industrial production processes and the mechanism of capitalism. In the capitalistic system an action is right if it maximizes profit. For example, if an individual or corporation owns a mountain, an action is correct which yields a profit from owning the mountain. If clear-cutting or strip-mining yields monetary profit, then clear-cutting or strip-mining is the correct action. Peripheral factors such as the destruction of habit and displacement of wildlife play a part in the decision only if greater profit can be achieved in not strip-mining or clear-cutting, by possibly charging, for instance, a fee for entrance to the area.

But is this a satisfactory normative system? From the perspective of ecological hermeneutics, no! Such an ethic is myopically atomistic. Laissez-faire capitalism does not consider such actions within the greater context of the lifeworld; laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t consider the broader ecological ramifications of clear-cutting or strip-mining to all the other living or non-living entities of the mountain. As Leopold noted in elaborating his land ethic, those natural entities which have no economic value are excluded from decision making procedures based on economics, and most members of the biotic community have little economic worth. (13)

In contradistinction, ecological hermeneutics acknowledges the value of those things which do not have economic value by recognizing their biotic worth. Humans share the mountain with many other nonhuman forms of life, so the consequences of the destruction of habit, the displacement of wildlife and the general upset of the natural balance of the biota all have importance in a decision process regarding the use of industrial technologies (such as clear-cutting or strip-mining). Ecological hermeneutics suggests that razing the mountain and destroying the forest is likely not the correct action.

To recapitulate, laissez-faire capitalism puts no restrictions on the use of industrial technology unless such uses have an effect on capital gain. (14) At the same time, it would be counter-intuitive, at least for those of us who are part of the Occidental tradition, to think no uses of technology were justifiable. Ecological hermeneutics provides a decision procedure for distinguishing uses of technology which are justifiable in their degree of harmony with the lifeworld with those that are not.

For example, let's look at two uses of technology related to transportation: bicycles and automobiles. Both provide transportation and both have a negative impact on the environment in the sense that they require the extraction of minerals and pollutive industrial manufacturing processes. Without delving into a prolix description of my past experiences as they relate to bicycles and cars, I can safely say from the perspective of ecological hermeneutics that bicycles are far more harmonious and therefore much more justified in use than motor vehicles: cars require that larger areas of the earth be covered by asphalt, cars require the extraction of petroleum, cars create air pollution, etc. Bicycles provide the most efficient form of human-powered transportation, keep one in shape, and are aesthetically pleasing to ride because of the highly sensory nature of cruising down the road open to all the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of wind on your face.

But since the production and use of bicycles is more justifiable than that of automobiles, this does not necessarily mean that all uses of motor vehicles are unjustifiable (as in the cases of ambulances, fire engines, etc.) or even that any individual is unjustified in owning a car, but only that an increased use of bicycles and a decreased use of cars is a wise idea. Certainly the automakers and oil companies of America do not support this conclusion, since the more per capita miles driven by each American each year yield higher profits for them and their stockholders.

Another example contrasting the decision procedure of capitalism versus ecological hermeneutics is strip-mall development. Venture capitalists build more malls in one area than there are people to shop at all of them. The financiers of each mall compete for the shoppers there are in an attempt to make a profit. Eventually some of the malls will go bankrupt and become dormant, causing the blight of acres of asphalt and bland hulking department stores where there was once open farmland. But this negative factor of empty malls is of no concern to the capitalist aside from lost profit; failed malls are merely part of capitalistic competition. From the perspective of ecological hermeneutics, it is easy to conclude that perhaps it is better to only build as many malls as there are shoppers to fill them.

As a decision procedure, ecological hermeneutics attempts to grapple with such considerations which modern science and capitalism do not acknowledge. Thus the point of ecological hermeneutics is to use a broader criteria by including the impact of technology in the lifeworld.


Now we must ask: what can we expect from the activity of ecological hermeneutics?

In step with hermeneutics in general, ecological hermeneutics is sensitive to all the traditions, prejudices, etc., of those cultures that comprise our global village. In doing so, ecological hermeneutics is multi-ethnological. The practice of ecological hermeneutics demands that I, as a descendent of Western Europeans and part of the Occidental tradition, cannot be expected to advocate the total abolition of the use of science and industrial technology, e.g., medical technology, bicycle technology, or the computer technology I am currently using to write this paper. But at the same time I need to be sensitive to the beliefs of other nontechnological traditions, such as Native Americans, for instance. Because ecological hermeneutics retains the importance of cultural prejudices, it demands cross-cultural sensitivity. But in admitting the importance of prejudice, its insights will never be unambiguous or uncontroversial.

This brings us to a second point. If the insights of ecological hermeneutics are never unambiguous or uncontroversial, what is the value of such a decision procedure? Since the subject matter is human activity in the lifeworld, we cannot expect definitive answers as we would in math or geometry. This parallels Aristotle’s point in The Nicomachean Ethics book I, chapter 3 that ethical and political wisdom can never be as precise as knowledge of mathematics or geometry since human activities "exhibit much variety and fluctuation." (15)

Gadamer echoes this feeling when he writes, "It would appear that the domain of human affairs is one that chiefly falls into the realm of chance." (16) As a result "hermeneutics" and "interpretation"

imply a sharp distinction between the claim of being able to explain a fact completely through deriving all its conditions...the well-known ideal of natural scientific knowledge; and on the other hand, the claim (say, of interpretation), which we always presume to be no more than an approximation: only an attempt, plausible and fruitful, but clearly never definitive. (17)

Therefore, the insights of ecological hermeneutics can never be apodictic because it does not claim the possibility of objective rectitude in decisions of human action; there can be no rigorous method in ascertaining whether a certain technological practice will or will not fit back into the lifeworld (e.g., although we face the specter of nuclear annihilation, nuclear power generation might have a real lifeworldly benefit in light of greenhouse-effect warming).

As ecological hermeneutics is interpretive and arises from one’s own experiences in the lifeworld, it is subjective in essence and denies the possibility of detached, objective reason and its accompanying decision making procedures regarding the use of technology. (18) But this apparent failure is actually a strength; whereas the detached modern scientist and the capitalist fail to interpret the broad ramifications of their actions in the lifeworld, ecological hermeneutics attempts to interpret all actions regarding the use of technology within the broad scope of the lifeworld.

Thus, with its holistic emphasis, ecological hermeneutics is more felicitous to life on earth than modern science or capitalism. The upshot of this is that the insights of ecological hermeneutics are often in direct contradiction with the doctrines of modern science and capitalism.


Of course one does not need to be aware of ecological hermeneutics to arrive at the conclusions I have in this paper; such insights can be arrived at simply through ecological common-sense. What I have tried to do is penultimately give a philosophical justification of questioning the decision making procedures discernible in the natural sciences and capitalism, and ultimately to provide a philosophical tool by which to undermine these insensitive ways of utilizing technology.

But in such questioning and undermining, ecological hermeneutics does not advocate the abolition of all of the uses of technology. Rather, ecological hermeneutics endeavors to interpret and discern the justifiable uses of technology from unjustifiable ones. When any use of technology is questioned, many scientific positivists make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion that one is advocating a complete dismissal of technology and suggesting that "we go back and live in caves."

This is not the case. The maxim of ecological hermeneutics is simply this: any use of technology — whether in relation to scientific research or capitalism — must always be interpreted within the context of the lifeworld in terms of biotic harmony.

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This paper benefited greatly from the comments of Drs. Bernard P. Dauenhauer and Victoria Davion.

(1) I am using ‘lifeworld’ here to generally connote the domain—circumscribed by the horizon—of corporeal experience. It includes the idea of a fusion of the human horizon of Being (in the verbal sense) with the lifeworld horizons of all nonhuman beings whom we are inextricably tied to in earthly existence. "Lifeworld" can be thought of in both regional and global senses. Immediacy gives locality a primacy, but, on the other hand, with the specters of nuclear apocalypse and greenhouse-effect warming, we are now living in a "global village." In the former sense, "lifeworld" can be thought of as the biota, and in the latter sense as the entire biosphere.

(2) ‘Technology’ is used here to broadly refer to the human production and use of synthetic chemicals, machines, the methodical extraction of natural resources, and generally any process related to modern industrial manufacture, in addition to referring to research in the natural sciences such as nuclear physics and genetic engineering, for example.

(3) Reason in the Age of Science, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989), p. 71.

(4) ‘Theory’ here means the construction of anormative, objective methodologies, techniques, etc., a priori to any implementation, application, practice, experience.

(5) Reason in the Age of Science, p. 131.

(6) Reason in the Age of Science, p. 135. Italics mine.

(7) "The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem." Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 9.

(8) In passing it is interesting to note the phenomenological currents discernible here; there is no subject/object dualism. The locus of truth—in the Aristotelian sense of unconcealment, aletheuein—does not lie in the perceived object or the perceiving subject, but in a unity which entails both, a "structure of intentionality."

(9) See James W. Kunetka, Oppenheimer: the Years of Risk (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982), p. 5.

(10) Although I believe ecological hermeneutics has application to all industrial production processes—communistic, socialistic or capitalistic, etc.—I will limit my discussion for the purposes of this paper to the capitalistic system.

(11) "The Land Ethic," A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 224-25.

(12) Vide Paul Ehrlich’s "Impact of Population Growth." Science Vol. 171 (March 26, 1971).

(13) A Sand County Almanac, p. 210.

(14) For many people this is good reason to be suspicious of "green labeling;" are corporations really altruistically concerned about the environment or is such labeling merely a marketing strategy designed to stimulate sales?

(15) Op. cit., trans. David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 3.

(16) Reason in the Age of Science, p. 8

(17) Ibid., p. 105. Italics mine.

(18) In passing it is interesting to note that from the perspective of ecological hermeneutics, such attempts such as Julian Simon’s to discount any aspect of human life which cannot be quantitatively measured are exceedingly tenuous. As he sees it, the "simplest and most accurate measure of health is length of life, summed up as the average life expectancy." But in an effort to remain objective, Simon blatantly overlooks the possibility that life expectancy might have nothing to do with quality of life, as in the cases of terminally ill patients kept alive on respirators. See The Ultimate Resource (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 130.

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