Dr. Callicott took some time this spring to answer some of Purlieu’s questions regarding philosophical divisiveness, environmental philosophy, and the role of the natural sciences in the 21st century
PURLIEU: To begin with, could you tell us a little bit about where you came from, where you grew up?
CALLICOTT: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and my dad was a fine-artist—I mean in the hyphenated sense of the word. He was primarily a painter, but he was also an art teacher at a college level institution, a sort of municipally-funded art school. That meant that we didn’t have much money, starving artists and all that.
So I grew up in a lower, middle-class, very modest neighborhood and went to public school—same school, by the way, from the first grade to the twelfth. And it turned out to be the same school that two members of Booker T and the MG’s went to, who were in my graduating class: Steve Cropper and Doug Dunn, who can be seen in the Blues Brother’s movie—that’s probably the most accessible place.
It was during the birth, you might say “leading edge,” of a kind of cultural revolution. The idea of a cultural revolution we usually associate with China and Mao, but there was a cultural revolution going on in the United States, the germs of which started in the 1950s with the beat poets, the emergence of rock and roll, and it sort of gained momentum through the 1960s.
I graduated from high school in 1959, so in this formative period, as I like to say, I didn’t listen with my ears as so much with my breast bone. It sort of enters you in a subliminal way at that age; you just sort of absorb it. And as it was with so many people, that period and those years really set the course for the rest of my career and life. Because there was a sense that really big changes are taking place, and I wanted to be on the leading edge of the wave that dominated the sixties, which included the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement.
So I was really more involved in the 1960s with the civil rights movement: I went to Syracuse University in 1963 for graduate school, and when I returned to Memphis in 1966, I started my first job at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State University), which had only recently integrated. I was asked by a handful of black students, recently matriculated there, to be the advisor of their Black Students Association as there were no African American faculty members. So I became very involved in the southern civil rights movement from about 1966 until I left Memphis in 1969. I was there, in Memphis, during Martin Luther King’s last campaign. I was coordinating college campus activities with Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I was in the midst of the movement, and it was one of the most transformative and also personally wounding events in my life. I mean, I’m about to break down now; I still cannot remember those days without a sense of real personal loss.
Yeah, because in my opinion, Dr. King was the greatest moral leader of the 20th Century. So when I think what we lost with that assassination—it feels very sad to me, still. So anyway, that’s the background to what we really want to talk about here: the emergence of environmental philosophy.
So what was the significance of those years in Memphis to the emergence of environmental philosophy? And in particular, the formation of your thought?
This is something that my next book, which will be a memoir, will get into. This book is at the urging of my spouse Priscilla Ybarra, who is Mexican-American and working at the interface of Chicano/Chicana studies and environmental studies—which means at the interface of environmental concerns and social concerns.
I think that the background of most people who were founders of the field of environmental philosophy consisted in a romantic sense of the natural environment, they were emotionally and experientially involved in the natural environment. For me, my interest in environmental philosophy came directly out my involvement with the southern civil rights movement. As a philosopher, I recognized that the basic philosophical tenants of the southern civil rights movement—human universalism, human rights, human dignity, all of those things—could be found in 18th century enlightenment thinking.
In Memphis, I was a foot soldier in MLK’s movement, and I wasn’t contributing anything unique as an intellectual, as a philosopher. Looking around at what was going on at that time, it occurred to me that while the core of the thinking at the base of the civil rights movement had been accomplished in the 18th century, but—essentially—no one was thinking about the human relationship with nature. This was completely unprecedented in the history of western philosophy, with very few exceptions. Not to diminish the challenge of the civil rights movement at a social and political level, but here was a real ethical challenge at the philosophical level.
I had already begun to think about this challenge before I left Memphis, and then as a result of my participation in the civil rights movement (and being involved in a lot of other things that young people are involved in that can get you in trouble if you’re not careful), I lost my job at the University of Memphis and landed, fortunately, at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. That happened to be the epicenter of the nascent environmental movement because it was in the backyard of Aldo Leopold, the Fountain Lake Farm of John Muir, and a historically progressive state.
The program at Stevens Point was focused on natural resources: forestry, fisheries, that sort of thing; so there was a large environmentally-oriented contingent there. It was like my Dad (who has a mystical bent) said, “it wasn’t an accident that I landed there—it was providence.” All of these earlier events led me to Stevens Point.
But before I had even arrived there, I had been thinking that the real intellectual challenge was found in the environmental movement, as opposed to the anti-war movement (the war was going to be over one way or another), and the civil rights movement was now a matter of battles held in the streets, courts, and political arenas, but not in the intellectual arena. The environment offered the largest challenge to think, at a fundamental level, about the age-old questions of philosophy: what is nature? what is human nature? what is the appropriate relationship between the two?
Can you talk a bit more about the connection between the birth of environmental philosophy and the civil rights movement?
The connection, in terms of a developed literature, was established by the animal liberation / animal rights people who were arguing off of a concept of what one early environmental philosopher, Richard Routley, called the ethical base class: the set of entities to which we have ethical obligations. In the past, this was limited to white males.
So the civil rights movement was a movement to expand the base class, arguing that racial differences and characteristics, the color of a person’s skin, is not a legitimate reason to exclude them from the ethical base class. This was soon followed by second-wave feminism, in which similar arguments were made about gender, and then to other racial and ethnic categories, and then on the basis of this movement, animal liberationists (actually following Jeremy Bentham) asked: “if not race, if not gender, then why should species be the factor which excludes beings from participating in the ethical base class?”
So that trajectory had begun in the 1970s, and it continued to expand the scope of ethics beyond the human domain into the—you might say—the environment. But, [it was] not that far into the environment because animals are just a small fraction of the whole of nature. So what about plants? What about more holistic entities, what we might call trans-organismic biological entities such as species, biotic communities, ecosystems, and that sort of thing? Basically, what the animal liberationists did was establish a connection between non-anthropocentric ethics and things like the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. That door being opened, we started asking of even bigger questions and that, I think, is the connection that I would like to emphasize.
Do you think that your work, in particular, has moved on from that connection? Where did you go in your own thinking after you left Stevens Point?
Well, that’s a big project. It’s not the sort of thing that one can do today and next year, or even let’s say, the next five years, and then go on to something else, even though some people do. That’s a very basic and fundamental shift in philosophy.
But to answer to your question directly: I didn’t go anywhere in that regard. It was about, ‘how do we move this project forward’? We found ourselves in terra incognita: this was intellectually unexplored territory, and there you begin to push boundaries and find that the problems are bigger than you thought, and you’re now in dialog with other people who have different conceptions. So certain arguments internal to the field begin to develop; you begin to develop various positions—positions gradually begin to articulate themselves—and I began to be identified with a certain focus in the field which I wanted to sustain as the field develops, so the focus just does not get overwhelmed, forgotten, and moved on.
So I became enamored with the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold, which is a certain approach to environmental ethics, and then I began to try to expand that because Leopold had left us with about 25 pages of very, very loose prose and text. I sometimes like to think about that as the tip of the iceberg, and I wanted to sound the depths of the unarticulated, or the so-far unarticulated, conceptual foundations of the Land Ethic. That leads me from Darwin’s work to the moral philosophy of David Hume. So my thinking became a historical project; but it also became a lateral project—as other people are finding fault with the way I was developing the Land Ethic—so I had to retrench, rethink, reformulate. This has been a life-long, career-long project. I’m still doing it. My current book is called From the Land Ethic to the Earth Ethic: Aldo Leopold in the time of Climate Change.
And this a huge new challenge. Climate change, in my opinion, really requires us to go right back to square one, where environmental philosophy is concerned, and essentially start over because of climate change’s spatial and temporal scales. We simply had not been thinking, certainly not Aldo Leopold, in terms of the scales, in time and space, which we are confronting now in global climate change. This is what I’m working on right now.
Do you see environmental philosophy, as you look back, as a continuation of the fundamental questions of philosophy? Is environmental philosophy simply a reformulation of those questions? Secondarily, what then are the standards of measure in a terra incognita?
Great questions, wonderful questions, both of them. I appreciate you asking the first one especially, because that was something that I wanted to get it into. I have already expressed this in an informal dialog regarding the last Special Edition of Purlieu, but one of the things that environmental philosophy presented was the ability, as I sometimes like to put it in an overly dramatic way, to do philosophy like a pre-Socratic, to paint with a broad brush.
Environmental philosophy raised the fundamental and, in some sense, the first issues or questions that western philosophy began with. Pre-Socratic philosophy begins with natural philosophy, and so ecology and the other sciences (along with the second scientific revolution of the 20th century, with physics and so on) open up the same questions which the pre-Socratics were dealing with. I was able to do philosophy in the grand tradition of philosophy which had been abandoned by, for the most part, 20th century philosophy.
Philosophy in the 20th century presented one with the choice between two alternatives, and I have criticized this distinction in Zabala’s article published in your journal: analytic philosophy or phenomenology, which is to say: continental philosophy. That’s basically it where 20th century academic philosophy is concerned.
I knew relatively little, given the accidents of my undergraduate education and graduate school, of continental philosophy, but what I did dabble in did not really inspire me. I was certainly alienated by analytic philosophy, which I found to be tedious and not really engaged with the sorts of things which I thought philosophy was really about. Environmental philosophy provided an opportunity to do philosophy in the traditional and historical way that philosophers had engaged their activity until the 20th century, where it all was abandoned.
Analytic philosophy, in the 20th century, became a kind of quasi-scientific discipline with an emphasis on rigor and precision of expression, assuming that the metaphysical and ontological issues had been settled. They focused on the analysis of language and concepts on the micro scale, which did not interest me at all.
So how does all this somehow relate to philosophy as we know it, by what standards is environmental philosophy to be judged, moving to your second question? This has been a very big problem for the discipline because environmental philosophy has not met the standards of 20th century academic philosophy. In a sense, it’s been a pariah in the field, literally. But we have 2,500 years of philosophy which went before, from which we might be able to identify certain standards of clarity of expression, logical structure, what I like to call “conceptual architecture” and so forth.
So your two questions were linked in the sense that environmental philosophy is an opportunity to get back to the great tradition of philosophy, and that tradition of western philosophy does provide certain standards of judgment of what is good philosophy and what is not. Despite the best efforts of the academic philosophy community to quash and squelch it, environmental philosophy has only gotten more vigorous. It is expanding and it is attracting many people from other disciplines. Unfortunately, as a lecture I heard today illustrates, these people are perhaps reinventing the field as they are drawn into it. Nevertheless, environmental philosophy is not going away.
So you’re comfortable with being called an environmental philosopher?
Oh yes! That’s my self-identification. What I am not comfortable with is to be called an analytic philosopher—by no means. My work has been essentially ignoring analytic philosophy. It has been carried on in a way that regards analytic philosophy as a historical aberration.
We are going to get back to what philosophy was and will be with environmental philosophy—I am very ambitious in this regard. I think environmental philosophy is the harbinger of the future of philosophy in the 21st century. I am not suggesting that 21st century philosophy is going to be environmental, but it will be interdisciplinary. 21st century philosophy will be open to dialog with other intellectual communities, it is going to be socially motivated to some extent but not limited to activism. It will be engaged with real-world problems, but it will do so in a way that remains at a critical distance which provides a conceptual generality, which characterizes western philosophy from its very beginning.
Socially motivated? So what is the connection between environmental philosophy and environmental ethics?
There is a difference between the two, and I say that I do both. The majority of my work is in environmental ethics, and my current work is very much in the domain of environmental ethics, but it is also metaphysically grounded. I don’t think that ethics is hermetically sealed: it has to have foundations and those foundations are not themselves ethical. That is, before we can start talking about ethics we have to talk about what it means to be a moral agent, a person, what our relationship is to others and to the world.
To take a concrete example: the prevailing tradition of ethics (which is Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism) has an underlying assumption of external relations whereby individuals can be defined independently of other individuals, externalizing the relationships. This is in opposition to a sense of internal relationships whereby one’s identity and individuality is defined in terms of relationships, so that one cannot cut themselves out of a whole—either a social or natural whole—and be independent of it. The connectivity that we have with each other and the world recalibrates our ethics. To do ethics, you have to start with metaphysics. So the metaphysical is the larger environmental philosophy, and the ethics is more limited to human behavior: its evaluation, making judgments and decisions, etc.
So how do you understand science today, as it’s currently practiced in western universities? What should philosophy’s relationship with this science be?
First of all, I think that science at its high-end, if I can put it that way, its theoretical end, is natural philosophy. It’s important here to say that I specialized in Ancient Greek philosophy in graduate school, particularly Plato, so how I see philosophy is more expansive than those who are more narrowly trained, especially more so than those in the analytic tradition. When I think of philosophy, it begins with Thales and the Pre-Socratics, reaches a sort of peak—I cannot say perfection—but a zenith with Plato, and with Aristotle it begins—and I’m joking here, but— a long decline. The point I’m trying to make is that philosophy can be thought in this broadly defined historical context, and the first philosophy is natural philosophy. Natural philosophy posed three questions which are still alive in science today: first, of what is the world composed? What is the material, Aristotle would say “substrate,” of the world? Thales answered water, Anaximenes with air, the Atomists with atoms, the Pythagoreans answered mysteriously that the world is composed of number. The second question was concerned with the law governing worldly processes. Heraclitus answers with Logos, for example. The third question is about what are the forces which move the stuff of the world?
And these are questions which are still open today. But who is engaging these questions? Not philosophers, but theoretical physicists. Their work is in the direct lineage of the pre-Socratics. The work of contemporary science, theoretical physics, is the last iteration of the tradition which begins with Thales. It is not unbroken temporally, but every time that it is revived, it’s built on the work of predecessors.
So Newton adopts the ontology, for example, of Democritus and the Atomists; Copernicus is working in the tradition of astronomy which goes back to the Greeks and indeed, by the way, the Greeks, with Aristarchus, achieved a heliocentric astronomy. This tradition continues today, and in a sense, at least at the high end, the conceptual, theoretical end, science is philosophy. Right now I’m teaching a philosophy of ecology class where the readings consist of about 80 percent ecology and 20 percent philosophy, and that’s because 90 percent of the 80 percent of the ecology that we’re reading is natural philosophy. And so that’s one answer to your question: that natural philosophy is just high-end science, and high-end science is natural philosophy.
Is it important then that scientists recognize that they may be doing, or are doing, natural philosophy?
I think that a lot of today’s scientists do realize that they are doing natural philosophy.
Then, what do you make of the common argument that there has been a shift in the history of science, that one time this recognition was more prevalent than today?
Well, I think there was, at least among the earliest ecologists this recognition. But even today, there is [Daniel] Simberloff who is doing ecology, and he takes it back to the metaphysics of the Greeks, and so he is working in a philosophical contexts. We will also be reading some very recent ecologists who easily use the word “paradigm” and “paradigm shift,” which is Kuhnian philosophy of science—so they are recognizing that this is what ecology is. Now, there are many ecologists who do not, but they are not the ones who exert the most influence in the science itself.
The second point I want to make is perhaps controversial, although what I just said may be controversial enough. In any case, this is more controversial than the last. I just wrote a paper to be translated in French entitled, “First Philosophy is Natural Philosophy, and Moral Philosophy is Ancillary to Natural Philosophy.” The argument in that paper is that within the Ancient period, Atomism was followed by the social contract theory, and when Atomism was revived in modern science with Descartes and Galileo and eventually Newton, it was followed by the social contract theory in ethics. So why the pattern?
My theory is that the ontology of the social contract theory, these externally related individuals existing in a vacuous social world, are the social analogs of atoms moving in the void. The void, in the social world, is the state of nature with no laws or rules governing behavior. And so these individuals are colliding with one another, driven by very basic inertial forces, desire and aversion. The generation of ethics and laws provides an ordering of the otherwise chaotic interactions of the social atoms.
So we take a model of the way the physical world works, and it is analogically extended to the way the social world works, and that then provides the ontology, the notion of: “we have the laws of nature and now we need social laws to control the otherwise chaotic social atoms.” This chaos, when experienced, is a war of each against all in which human life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So we need to impose laws and create ethics in order to govern behavior. So that’s another answer: philosophy, in ways that are very subtle and very often not well perceived, mirrors the ontology that we imagine the natural world to exhibit.
Consequently, when there is a major change in natural philosophy, it will be followed by a major change in moral philosophy. There was a second scientific revolution in the 20th Century, and the lag-time is usually about one century. So I am expecting that the ontological implications of that revolution in natural philosophy are just now beginning to show up in moral philosophy, and that will be the shape of things to come. So we can ask, “What was the natural philosophy of the early 20th century?” and then we can begin to have an inkling of what the moral philosophy of the early 21st century is going to be like.
As an analog to the scientific shift of the early 20th century, as far as physics is concerned, we can witness the birth of theory of relativity, quantum theory, and the emergence of ecology. So we see with the quantum world the idea that we have these little hard particles separated by absolute space is gone; instead, we have matter and energy being transformed into one another. We have exotic things like quarks and super-strings and geometrical vortices in four-dimensional continuums. It is a very relational kind of natural ontology, and we see a similar internally relational ontology in ecology, and we can begin to see this in today’s moral philosophy, although not consciously in the way that I am describing it.
So the civil rights movement is a revolution, but the way you have described the environmental philosophy movement, it appears more as a reformation, not a revolution.
Well, there are large revolutions and there are small ones. And there are lag times as well as different domains. So what happened in the 1960s was at a smaller scale, in terms of revolution, and it was in the domain of popular and political culture.
It was occurring in a lag: the basic humanistic thinking had been done in the 18th century and it was just playing out in the United States and the rest of the world in the form of the civil rights movement. The enlightenment of the 18th century begot a universalism, and our culture really caught up with that in the 1960s. It was really the implementation of philosophical ideas that were already out there.
For me, then, as a philosopher, it is about what is next. So we have to stand back and think about these larger patterns, taking us back to the Ancient Greeks and the relationship between natural philosophy and moral philosophy. It also takes us to the early modern period where the same kind of pattern is taking place. Then you have the second scientific revolution in the early 20th century and all along, culture is lagging. And I want to be where philosophy is going to be in another century, in terms of how the world and all of its institutional and technological expression catches up to the intellectual revolution that has already taken place.
In my opinion, what has unfortunately happened within 20th century philosophy is that it missed that opportunity. The reason for that is found in logical positivism. In the 19th century, philosophical metaphysics had become so dissociated with reality, in terms of absolute idealism and the evolution of the sprit and so forth, that philosophers had an almost viscerally negative reaction to metaphysics. They wanted to get real, and they threw the baby out with the bath water. Metaphysics became a dirty word in 20th century philosophy from about the 1920s through the 1950s, and [philosophy at the time] was very focused on logic, mathematics, and the analysis of language at a very micro-scale: there was the policing of language and that sort of thing.
In continental philosophy, there was a parallel kind of science set up in phenomenology. And it became equally sort of discipline specific, methodologically intense, and subsequently dissociated from other intellectual trends going on. No scientists or psychologists pay much attention to phenomenology, which had created its own little barrio and continued on. And analytic philosophy did the same thing. This is part of the conversation which was being had in reaction to Zabala’s article, some of which was picked up by someone in the New York Times.
I sometimes say, rather dramatically, that 20th century philosophy was an aberration: it literally took itself out of the tradition and trajectory of philosophy. It staked out a territory, it built a silo, it involved itself only in its own arcane problems and conversations. And as a result, it is starting to wither on the vine. It’s become isolated, moving toward a conceptual dead-end.
Things like environmental philosophy—but not just environmental philosophy—are beginning to revive it. The hottest thing in ethics right now is moral psychology and evolutionary psychology, where people are doing experiments in ethics. It’s allied itself with neuro-biology, which is examining which parts of the brain are active during ethical conundrums. For me personally, this is very gratifying because it’s turning ethics toward a more Humean path, basically ethics as more emotional than rational.
But moral psychology pays very little attention to environmental ethics. It just so happens to be in this tradition that environmental ethics is leading, by reaching out to other areas and involving a dialog with, in our case ecology and conservation biology, and in their case, evolutionary psychology, neuro-biology, etc. Philosophy is now reaching out and becoming part of this larger intellectual conversation that is going on, and that is what is going to save it.
What makes Santiago Zabala’s article, “Being in the University”, in your words, ‘so twentieth century’?
This is the way I can make some fun of it: I think of a radio station in Ft. Worth, Texas that advertises playing “both kinds of music: country and western!” In the whole of American and European universities, they are just like this radio station, saying “we play both kinds of philosophy: phenomenology and analytic philosophy,” as if there’s no other!
That’s what pissed me off; that’s what got me going! There’s more to it than continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. There are other things that are starting to emerge that really represent the future of philosophy, and it is not just these two choices. That’s so 20th century! Here we are, more than a decade into the 21st century—and not just the 21st century, but the third millennium—and we need to realize that philosophy has always measured and calibrated its history in terms of centuries. The 20th century is over, it’s an historical period now, and analytic philosophy with phenomenology is a part of the history of philosophy. The real question is: what is philosophy today and where is it going?
Again, there are lag times and particularly in terms of institutions. In the 17th century, the philosophers that we remember did not have professorships in the universities, which were still dominated by Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophy, and there was a real tension between Descartes, Hobbes, and the Scholastics, who were still maintaining an obsolete philosophy.
So if you are not employed at the best institutions, you know that you are on to something good, because they’re just cloning themselves and reproducing the past, they’re never on the cutting edge. New things always start on the margins, the centers of academic power and prestige are always propelled by so much inertia, there is so much drag that keeps them from moving in a radical new direction. So environmental philosophy starts at the Stevens Points, the Humboldts, and the Colorado States rather than the Harvards and Stanfords and Berkeleys.
Given that the centers of academic power tend to maintain obsolete philosophies, what sort of education should a student of philosophy be aiming toward?
Well, that’s a very, very difficult question. There are the realities of the job market, so I do not want to say, “Go to the margins.” Because although you might get an exciting education, you might also not get a job. You might just not be able to really develop as a philosopher in an academic community.
My best advice is to do what I did: I chose a good university with a good program, but one that was sufficiently flexible, where I could do what I wanted to do. The most important thing for a budding philosopher is to be self-motivating and self-starting. Go to a place that will give you a good education but allow you to be a creative person, rather than bend you so as to conform you. Take what that program has to offer and use it for your own purposes, not simply to go on in the tradition as a clone. You don’t blame the schools for their limitations; you take what you can get from them and use it to your own purposes.
Given your past activism, have you seen the role of environmental activism change since the 1970s?
I need to make a confession: I haven’t been really engaged with environmental activism much at all. For me, environmental philosophy has been more of an intellectual passion than a practical one. I think that environmental activism was profoundly changed by 9/11. Prior to that there was a sometimes playful, somewhat romantic, but also somewhat very serious and destructive, sabotage movement which is no longer possible. It is so closely associated with terrorism—environmental terrorism as opposed to Islamic terrorism—but it is still terrorism. Even though radical environmental activists targeted, instead of people, stuff, it was violent. I think that environmental activism is still possible, but not radical environmental activism.
That’s one major change, and I am also of the opinion that the only meaningful change is a change in public policy which is driven by a change in ideas. I’ve written a few papers like “Environmental Philosophy is Activism” because it begins at the beginning to change values and laws which then shape our social and public behavior.
While it may sound self-serving, and allow one to be a conscience-free hypocrite, I don’t think that you can just go out and live an environmental lifestyle in a social context that isn’t supportive of one’s choices. Because to live in a world is to fit into it in some way. Our individual choices do not matter as much as the collective choices that we, as a society, are making: that’s the only meaningful change. We need to work for that change, and in order to get there we have to have the conceptual, philosophical foundations. That’s where I consider myself to be dedicated.
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J. Baird Callicott is University Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and formerly Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Texas. He is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, taught the world’s first course in environmental ethics in 1971 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and is considered a uniquely foundational thinker within environmental philosophy and ethics.