A Maze of Disciplines, Its Hedges Trimmed With Mutual Ignorance, Composing, 05/09/2013

Editing goes slowly sometimes, but as of composing this post for the morning, I’m almost finished chapter five of the ecophilosophy manuscript. Probably the most difficult aspect of this chapter is navigating the many disciplines from which its ideas are drawn, and threading them all together in a manner that makes something like sense. Not only is the task of sorting and organizing all these ideas difficult on its own, but one faces a problem of the legitimacy of drawing on multiple disciplines and sub-disciplines in the first place.

Alexander von Humboldt was also an
expert in handsomeness.
Essentially, the problem is encapsulated in the cliché: Jack of all trades, master of none. Someone who knows a lot about many regions of human knowledge prevents himself from being a genuinely respectable expert on anything at all. Human knowledge is such a vast and complex domain that no one can truly know enough about the details of it all to master the entire enterprise. Alexander von Humboldt was probably the last major figure in the sciences and humanities to manage this: a master of both biology and geography, and able to combine his knowledge of both to understand the relation of life to its territory. Essentially, he invented the concept of the ecosystem, along with every aspect of the ground of modern biology that Charles Darwin didn’t already take care of. His brother Wilhelm was another such remarkable figure: a political philosopher, epoch-making linguist, government minister and designer (from pretty much scratch) of the Prussian education system. One usual go-to person is Gottfried Leibniz, inventor of calculus, chemist, philosophical innovator, and who developed modern mathematical logic centuries before Whitehead and Russell, but left his notes in an old drawer unpublished because he wasn’t sure what would come of it. 

Here’s a list of what I draw on in this chapter of the ecophilosophy project.
  • Cybernetics
  • Biology, particularly the concept of autopoiesis that was adapted to it from early cybernetics research.
  • Deep ecology philosophy.
  • Dynamic systems theory, specifically as applied to individual organisms and to ecosystems.
  • The ontology of Spinoza.
If you aren’t sure how those go together, don’t worry. I just don’t have the energy to go into it after spending all evening finishing the edits on this chapter. I can also understand any skepticism you might have that any of what I write makes sense, because a lot of these topics are treated as entirely separate from each other. Most of the time, that works because most productive research in the humanities and sciences comes within the framework of disciplines.

But real-world phenomena don’t always obey the neat lines of established disciplines of knowledge. Consider cybernetics itself, a program that, throughout its history, has included contributions from philosophers, computer engineers, cryptographers, roboticists, and biologists, among many others. Think about the history of human knowledge, particularly in Leibniz’s time, when the methods of science themselves were still being worked out. Disciplines of knowledge develop as contingent social processes, and their boundaries could well have turned out one way or another. I organize my research projects according to problems, and if that problem involves a field of human knowledge with which I’m not totally familiar, then I consider myself as having some work to do, to become familiar enough with that area to understand how it affects my project. My ecophilosophy project can have a very wide and significant impact precisely because I didn’t restrict its scope to the boundaries of a single philosophical sub-discipline. I identified the problem that I wanted to understand, the issue for which I went after an answer. And I did what I needed to do in order to succeed.

Some may accuse me of hubris, but I write with ambition. And I can do no less.

No comments:

Post a Comment