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Philosophy and the Environment

Truth of the Myths of Nature

Erazim Kohak
Ustav filosofie a religionistiky FF UK

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ABSTRACT: The term "nature myths" designates narratives presenting what-is as intelligible in terms of value and meaning. Such narratives function to motivate ecological activism by articulating such presuppositions as the conviction that what we do matters, destruction of nature is intrinsically wrong, and the possibility of nondestructive human beings. However, such narratives motivate only if they are regarded in some sense as true. The question is, in what sense? Not in an objectivist sense (e.g. von Ranke), since value-even if intrinsic-is a subject related reality. Not in an idealist sense (e.g. Cassirer), since they respect the autonomy of reality. Nor in a "depth" sense of expressing an alleged "essential condition of guilt" (e.g. Heidegger and Patocka), since this would remain a positivist description, albeit one level removed. Instead, I propose treating nature myths as orienting the world (e.g. Jaspers) and guiding human components therein. As such, nature myths can be said to be true (as in Ricoeur’s "adamic" myth) or false (as in the myth of "Man the Master") inasmuch as they provide or fail to provide adequate guidance for sustainable coexistence with all of the Earth.

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The purpose of this paper is to ask in what sense, if any, ecological nature myths can be said to be not only ennobling and moving, but also in some significant sense true, able to claim a validity independent of the assent of those who tell and hear them.

I wish to use the term myth rather broadly to indicate not only the alleged spontaneous outpourings from the depth of our psyche, dear to romantically inclined philosophers and psychologists, but rather all narratives which describe the cosmos and the place of humans therein in terms of relations of value and meaning rather than in terms of mathematico-causal relations in spacetime. (1) In the quaint terminology of Husserl's Ideen II, they are personalistic narratives, rendering reality intelligible in terms of personal — that is, intrinsically subject-related — categories. (2)

Such narratives in fact play a crucial role in the effort to forge a sustainable mode of coexistence between humans and the rest of the creation. Humans may select the means for dealing with ecological damage in the light of natural scientific analysis but they are moved to deal with it at all by mythico-poetic articulation rather than by theoretical reconstruction of their lived experience.

Thus Rachel Carson, rigorous analytical chemist, moved her fellow humans by evoking their empathy through value laden poetic imagery. James Lovelock will be remembered far more for the mythical reception of his theory of Gaia as "Earth Mother" than for the theory itself. Aldo Leopold, too, devoted most of his Sand County Almanach to sensitive nature descriptions worthy of Joseph Wood Krutch. For that matter, though the longest chapter in Thoreau's Walden deals with the economics of voluntary simplicity, it is the description of the seasons close to the soil that make the work a classic. David Hume knew it already: humans may be guided by reason, but they are moved by sentiment.

Nor are ecological nature myths important as motivators only in the shallow sense of arousing empathy and so will to act, but far more basically as expressions of usually unstated basic convictions within whose framework ecological activism appears as appropriate mode of comportment. Three of these seem to me crucial:

First, the conviction that human decisions do matter, that they are not a matter of which and indifference. Yes, we humans are as free as Richard Rorty would have us be, to choose as we will. Nothing and no one prescribes to us what to do. We are free even to self-destroy. Our basic experience, though, is that our acts, while free, are not typically ineffectual. Our choices have consequences which do make a difference, and that difference is not a matter of indifference.

Certainly, we act ever in a situational context. What is appropriate in one may not be appropriate in another. Yet in a given situation it is not a matter of indifference how we act. There is, typically, a better and a worse, a more and a less appropriate alternative. That is an utterly fundamental conviction, so deeply rooted we seldom become aware of it, yet without it we would lapse into fatalism.

Secondly, the deeply held conviction that destruction of nature is an intrinsic, not only an instrumental wrong. It is wrong wantomly to maime a salamander or to release carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. There is one absolutely basic, irreducible reality of value and meaning: other things being equal, it is good to be and live, it is grievous to suffer and perish — or to stand idly by while others suffer and perish.

This conviction reflects a fundamental recognition mediated in European culture by the biblical and neo-platonic assumption that there is a fundamental asymmetry in the creation. From the very beginning, being and nothingness are not equal, as two sides of a coin. Being is primary, unum, bonum, verum. Nothingness is a corruption parasitic thereon. Life and death are not a yin and a yang. Life and joy are immensely precious and good, suffering and death, though globally a part of life, are individually grievous. It is better to live than not. That, ultimately, is the impetus behind all activism. Without it, we might still experience an infinite compassion for suffering nature but would be unlikely to do anything about it.

Finally, there is the third conviction, that humans, though not its lords and masters, are legitimately a part of nature, not interlopers therein. (3) After centuries of illusions of mastery with their concommitant devastation, it is easy to regard humans as in principle aliens, a cancerous growth which nature has to cast out. All other species tread lightly upon the earth, humans alone tread with concrete shoes. Even if all humans were miraculously to perish tomorrow, it would be centruries before nature could repair the damage we have wrought. Some of it, such as the premture extinction of species and desertification of environments, might prove irreversible.

Still, were we to believe that humankind is in principle a cancer, there would be no point in any ecological effort. A preferable strategy might be to let humankind selfdestruct as rapidly as possible. Ecological effort makes sense only if we are convinced that the damage we do is accidental — as well as that there is a difference between good and evil and that our decisions can make that difference.

These are the convictions which we articulate when we tell ecological myths about pastroral or agricultural peoples, about the ages of Gaia or about the community of all beings. Ever since Isaiah's vision of the peacable kingdom where "the leopard shall lie down with the kid ... and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isa. 11:6-7), such myths have motivated and sustained human efforts at ecological reponsibility.

Here, though, lies the rub. Ecological myths motivate human action precisely because we experience them not only as noble and comforting but as in some significant sense true. We may know that humans have never lived in the dreamlike harmony with nature which the romantics attributed to hunger/gatherer cultures and that there will never be a state like that which Isaiah describes. A lion who would eat straw like the ox would no longer be a lion. Still, we do not consider such visions as idle fables. In some real sense, we experience them as true, as laying a claim upon us. Yet in what sense?

Obviously not in the familiar positivist sense of telling it, with Luipold von Ranke, wie es eigentlich gewesen, "like it was." Such a conception of truth as adequatio rei et intellectu, correspondence of verbal description to an independently meaningful — in vulgar language, "objective" — reality a priori excludes from consideration all subject-dependent realities. Relations described by mathematical and mechanical categories — though not those categories themselves — might be described as subject independent and in that sense as equally valid for all experiencing subjects. Only thanks to that can we design measures which would pevent an ecological collapse, such as banning motorcars and aair travel to reduce heavy oxide emissions.

Such putatively "objective" description, however, cannot decide whether we ought to do so. Whether life ought to be preserved on the earth, whether humans ought to be a part of that life and whether humans ought to choose and act accordingly, all those are questions of value and meaning, and those are intrinsically subject-related. (4)

That, incidentally, is true even if we consider non-human nature good intrinsically, in itself. Good means necessarily good for someone, even if it is good for oneself. The term intrinsic value is legitimate to the extent that it represents a recognition that, for all that lives, life is a good for itself — and so can be said to be good in itself (or of itself), not as a means for another. That is the basic recognition: all other things being equal, it is good to live and grievous to perish, independently of aught else. Perhaps, since living is but one possible mode of being, that of animate beings, we might by metaphoric extension say that it is simply good to be, in whtever mode. For all that is, however humbly, its being is precious, good for itself, and its perishing a negation. In that sense, we can legitimately speak of intrinsic value, yet even such value remains a subject-dependent reality and so excluded from "objective" scientific inquiry.

The neo-kantian attempt to substitute coherence for correspondence as the criterion of truth ultimately fares no better. Ernst Cassirer worked out that attempt perhaps most consistently. In his classic An Essay on Man he developed the conception of myth and religion as a symbolic system, a conception reworked in various forms by numberous subsequent thinkers. Myth and religion, like other symbolic systems, constitute what is as a coherent whole — a "world" — in an internally consistent manner. Within the system, coherence is the critrion of truth of individual assertions. Ecological nature myths could thus be said to be true in the sense of being internally consistent closed systems. Yet to function as a motivator, the system needs be open to a world of action.

Cassirer and his successors are too faithful to experience to accept the ultimate consequence of the theory, the fundamental relativity of theoretical reason. That simply is not the way experience presents itself. The irreducibility of reality, what Nicolai Hartman was wont to call die Härte des Realen, is persistent. To anchor symbolic systems, Cassirer must limit their subject relativity. So it is science which he identifies as : the highest and most characteristic attainment of human culture" (5) in which subject related features are "forgotten and effaced for one of the principal aims of scientific thought is the elimination of all personal and anthropomorphic elements." (6) The truth of theoretical reason has again been saved by jettisoning the reality of value and meaning.

In central Europe, the preferred way of saving the truth of myths is to claim that, however they may deviate from the conventions of the empirical sciences, myths are true to an alleged "deeper" reality. Freud, Jung, Heidegger (7) have all elaborated this conception in their several ways. Among ecological writers, Arne Naess' followers, notably John Seed in his consciousness-raising handbook, Thinking like a Mountain, (8) have adopted this approach. For all of them, myths can be said to be true as faithful descriptions — or better, as spontaneous articulations — of a deeper level of reality, accessible to some form of nonreflective experience.

For our purposes, the best example, philosophically rather more sophisticated than most ecological texts but less invincibly obscure than Heidegger's, is Jan Patocka's essay, "The Truth of Myth in Sophocles' Drama of the Labdakians." (9) Myth, Patocka claims, is "truth in a strong sense." What it expresses is not some vague second level reality but rather what Patocka regards as the primordial human situation. Myth is a narrative which recounts "the essential 'already' of human life ... the burst of light in the darkness of infinity (234)." Less poetically, the initial experience whose memory we continue to bear within us is that of breaking through, of standing out of the continuum of natural necessity in the audacious act of freedom. It is in breaking free of natural harmony that humans constitute themselves in their distinctiveness. Thus, Patocka has it, human life does not include a transgression, rather, it is in itself a transgression. This is something of which we are wholly unaware in our everydayness, busy with the tasks of each day. The deep truth of myth is that it reveals to us guilt as our essential condition.

That is a powerful symbol, and writers like Heidegger and Patocka present it powerfully as well. Is it true, though? It does represent an ecologically significant recognition — thast human wishes do not constitute an entitlement. The fact that we desire the advantages of an automobile does not mean that we have a "right" to release vast amounts of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. Is guilt, though, our essential condition? (10)

On closer inspection, the romantic conception of truth appears rather like a "depth" verson of a positivistic epistemology. The criterion of truth remains that of descriptive (or expressive) accuracy. What has changed is that the reality being described is neither the mathematico-mechanical reality-construct of natural scientific theory nor the reality of ordinary lived experience — the Lebenswelt of Husserl's Crisis — but rather the alleged reality of an alleged privileged experience, one of poetic insight. That reality is said to be deeper, the insight more profound and defying univocal expression, but the model is still one of the correspondence of a verbal statement to a putative autonomous reality. Thus das Wesen der Wahrheit, it seems, is something like a second level positivism, still striving for a faithful expression of an accurtely observed reality.

That is a troublesome conclusion. A description can avoid observer relativity only by an objectivity which precludes subject related predicates of value and meaning — and so precisely the kind of narrative with which ecological philosophy is concerned. Quite aside from the uncomfortable fact that Patocka"s "deep truth" of human presence as guilt is a direct denial of the basic ecological conviction, that humans are legitimately a part of life on Earth, there is also the fact that the problem dogging all descriptions — observer relativity — has returned, one level removed. Ecological myths, it seems again, can be either meaningful or true, not both.

Is, though, the purpose of ecological mythical narrative really description? Is a human essentially a theoretician and not, as Husserl would have it, a theoros, participating in a sacred drama much as a believer participates in an eucharistic service? Does not that assumption beg the question? Does it not assume, quite a priori, that there is an independently meaningful reality, whether superficial or "deep," and that the task of our narratives is to describe or express it?

Yet that is a problematic assumption which all our experience denies. Reality with subjects abstracted would simply be, it would not mean, would not be good, would not be one, a whole. As Heidegger and Patocka both recognise — and Husserl before them — meaning and value emerge only with purposive activity, in a functioning. Only when there is a living plant seeking to grow does its place become an environment within which moisture is good and scorching heat bad. Only when a woodchuck grazes on a clearing does that clearing become an ordered whole, meaningful and so potentially true. Truth, meaning, value are not a function of a static reality but rather of a purposeful functoning.

We humans, however, lack an adequate instinctual system which would enable us to function unreflectingly. To a significant extent, we rely on habit, custom and tradition as our substitutes for instinct. When these fail, we have to resort to constructing cognitive models to make sense — literally — of our world or, in Jaspers' term, to orient it. (11)

That, I would submit, is the function of ecological nature myths. They are not descriptions, either of ordinary or of alleged deep reality. They are not descriptions at all. They are proposals for acting in the world. Thus the question is not whether reality "really is" a set of spacetime entities in mathematico-mechanical relations, or perhaps an internally related organism, or, finally, a community of persons. The question is, rather, which set of assumptions provides the most adequate framework for action.

When the question is how best to manipulte particular spacetime entities, mathematico-mechanical assumptions may well have their uses. A vitalistic model is generally preferable for ecological purposes, concerned with the internal interaction within natural wholes. However, when the question is one of meaning and value, how should we humans comport ourselves in order to assure long terms sustainability of our presence on earth, then the model of the whole of life on earth as a community of persons — of beings to whose transactions moral, not merely causal, considerations apply — is by far the most adequate. Think of the deer and the elephant as your kin, think of all you receive as a gift from the Earth. Treat it with respect, use it considerately and thankfully. That is the essential message of the ecological myths of nature.

Is it true? Yes, emphatically so, in the sense that those are the assumptions which will best assure long term sustainability of life on Earth. The truth of myths is not accuracy of description but adequacy of guidance. In those terms, the theory of unending expansion is viciously false. The myth of intrinsic value and biotic equality of all being is profoundly true. (12)

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(1) In the usage adopted for the purposes of this study, myths can be said to be narratives which deliberately leave claims of factual instantiation suspended, after the manner of Czech story tellers who begin their tales with "Bylo, nebylo..." — it was and it was not. Paul Ricoeur cites Roman Jakobson, also a Czech speaker, as noting similar usage in Spanish, "Aixo era y no era...," signalling a poetic intention. Paul Ricoeur, La metaphore vive (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1975), Study 7 note 57 (English tr. by Robert Czerny, The Rule of Metaphor (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977):256)

(2) Husserl uses the term personalistisch as a synonym for geistig and appears to have initially intended by it no more than that aspect of our lifeworld constituted by the works of human freedom rather than by natural necessity. However, given his emphasis on embodiment, the perspective he describes, constituting what-is as an intelligible whole in terms of categories of value and meaning, cannot but include non-human and non-animate beings as well. Personalistisch thus comes to indicate not one segment of the life world but the whole of the world as constituted by such categories. So Husserl, Ideen II (Hua IV, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1952) esp Para. 49 and 56

(3) In traditional philosophy this appears as the distinction between guilt and finitude. The Hebrew-Christian tradition distinguishes them: God creates humans good and at peace with nature, guilt enters in through a subsequent human act, but is not a necessary aspect of the creation of finite beings. In ecological terms, it is the conviction that harmonious coexistence of humans with the rest of nature is possible, human destructiveness not necessary. So Ricoeur, op.cit., 315, though the entire second volume of his Philosophie de la volonte is devoted to the topic of Finitude et culpabilite, the relation of finitude and guilt. Ricoeur deals with the Christian distinction between creation and the fall specifically in Book II, La symbolique du mal (Paris, Editions Montaigne, 1960):220-36

(4) I have dealt with this in detail in "Personalism: A Philosophical Delineation," The Personalist Forum (1977, in press)

(5) Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man /sic/ (New Haven, Yale University Press/Doubleday Anchor, 1953):260

(6) Ibid., 285-86; for a detailed analysis, see his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 2, Mythical Thought (New Haven, Yale, 1955):29-71

(7) Ecological activists are not for the most part given to detailed study of obscure scholarly texts such as Sigmund Freud's notorious seventh chapter of Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey (New York, Avon, 1965):648-60) or C.G.Jung's 1937 Terry Lecture, "The Autonomy of the Unconscious" (Psychologie und Religion, Zurich, Rascher Verlag, 1947:9-62). Heidegger's influence (notably Para. 44 of Sein und Zeit (Halle, Niemeyer, 1929, Eng. Being and Time, tr. Macquarrie and Robinson, New York, Harper, 1962, and extended presentation in "Vom Wesen der Wahrheit" in Wegmarken, Frankfurt a.M., Klostermann, 1978:175-200) tends to be more direct, though by far the most common reference is to Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989) whose treatment of the problem in the first chapter is aimed at a rather broader audience. This may help explain the somewhat distinctive presentation in work cited in following footnote.

(8) John Seed et al., Thinking like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings (Philadelphia, New Society Publishers, 1988) esp. pp. 45-52 and 57-66

(9) Jan Patocka (1907-77), "Pravda mytu v Sofoklovych dramatech o Labdakovcich," (The Truth of Myth in Sophocles' Labdakian Dramas), here cited from Archival Typescript of collected works, vol. Umeni a filosofie II (Praha, samizdat, 1977):185-93, also in print in Svetova literatura 36.5 (1991):57-60, hitherto not in English; German translation "Die Wahrheit des Mythus in Sophokles Labdakiden-Drama" by I. and V. Srubar, in Klaus Nellen and Ivan Srubar, eds., Kunst und Zeit (Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1987):106-15

(10) This is the problem we encountered earlier. Patocka, like Heidegger and romantic thinkers in general, assumes the identity of finitude and guilt: humans experience themselves as guilty simply in virtue of individual existence. The conception of primordially sinful condition ("original sin," as Rom 3:23 and 5:12) attests that Christians are not exempt from this experience. However, already the creation myths deny it, insisting on finite creation as good (Gen 1:31), making the point that the truth of myth need also be put to the test. The point is not simply whether it faithfully expresses experience but whether it can adequately guide it.

(11) Karl Jaspers (specifically Philosophy, tr. E.B. Ashton, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1969:II.103-26 and 250-62) helps to distinguish the point we wish to make from (the common interpretation of) pragmatism. While revisionist interpreters like Richard Rorty might offer a different reading, the conventional interpretation has been that John Dewey assumes a pregiven orientation of the world which he sums up in the concept of growth (as in Experience and Education (New York, Macmillan, 1938),) where he explicitly denies the need to "specify ... the end toward which it tends" (25-26). The task of thought then is to provide tools for achieving an end built into our being, and criterion of truth is whether it does so. I take the task of thought to be more basic — to provide an orientation to our life and our world. The criterion I am invoking is formal and Kantian — whether that orientation involves an internal contradiction which emerges in its universalization, or, whether a civilization based on such strategy will self-destruct.

(12) I should like to thank the young people of Hnuti DUHA and of the Forest Foundation VLK, ecological activists in the Czech and in the Slovak part of former Czechoslovakia respectively, for helping me understand that though myths cannot claim to be prima facie true, neither should they be assumed to be false. For anyone able to read Czech or Slovak their journal, Posledni generace, is highly rewarding reading.

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