Natural Culture, Research Time, 21/10/2013

A curious idea occurred reading Joe Margolis’ Aesthetics book this weekend. The central motive of the book is that the contemporary Analytic aesthetics discourse in the discipline of philosophy either ignores or refuses to believe an important truth: culture is separate from nature, and cannot be explained entirely in naturalistic terms, referring only to individual thinkers and universal terms. The precise argument I won’t go over here, because it’s extremely complicated, involving an exploration of the Hegelian model of historicizing our aesthetics. I’m writing an 800 word daily blog post, which has a slightly smaller mission statement. 

So take it for granted that the framework of aesthetic production and critical appreciation is conditioned by historical contexts and developments. From this, it follows that peculiarly cultural processes are the only such processes that can create what we call art in all its forms, disciplines, and genres, and art’s appreciation and criticism.

If you ever need a visual explanation of the natural character
of human culture, watch Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana.
Among many things, it shows how even empires rot.
This would appear at first to put me at odds with my older colleague. My ecophilosophy manuscript describes a conception of culture that is itself a naturally generated process: the plasticity of the human brain enables a creative sense with our artifacts and tools because we become self-conscious of our relationship with the world. Engagement with the world actually drives and shapes the intelligence and personality — self-consciousness — as the higher brain develops through practical action as an infant and toddler. An evolved human trait, a trait that emerged from ecological selective processes, our brain plasticity creates culture. 

I latch onto this as the only way to conceive of humanity, as a natural creation, that can condition an unalienated environmental activism. If we see our ecological crises today as a war between the good creative nature and the bad destructive culture, we end up with a politically dangerous environmentalism that devalues humanity through making ourselves other than nature. Overcoming this, we can more easily conceive of humans as natural creatures ourselves, subject to natural happenings like self-extinction from drowning in our own waste matter. How we overcome it is understanding culture as a product of nature, a peculiar adaptation that may be beneficial for some contexts, but not for others.

How to adapt my suspicions that an aesthetically informed ethics can be the philosophical science of virtues that can show us how best to live? If the whole solution to whatever impasse in which contemporary aesthetics finds itself stuck can be solved only be separating nature and culture?

Easy. Just because culture is a natural process doesn’t mean specifically cultural products are of the same kind as non-cultural parts of nature. After all, if cultural products weren’t a radical innovation from what had come before, we cultured creatures wouldn’t have built any of the systems like technology, government, economies, or art. It’s clearly of a different order from what came before. 

The ecophilosophy project doesn’t reduce culture to anything. It expands the concept of nature to cover all of what is. Culture is a brand new, peculiar, remarkable creation of nature with its own singular order. 

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