Tough Times Call for Creativity I: On Getting the Book, A History Boy, 30/12/2014

From nearly eight years ago, when I'd first decided to
become a university professor. Doesn't feel like it's
me anymore.
I feel extremely lucky that I had someone like Barry Allen at McMaster University for my dissertation supervisor (and thankful not only for his help, but that Evan Simpson at Memorial University recommended him as a supervisor with whom I would get on well; that I certainly did). From the perspective of a 25-year-old fresh doctoral student starting what he thought would be a vibrant and inspirational career as a university professor, teacher, and researcher, I always conceived my dissertation as the first draft of my first published book of philosophy. 

This is not how most doctoral students approach their dissertation. It’s supposed to be a forgettable document that proves you have the basic capacity to research a complicated project and critically summarize it in something approaching a sane manner. It’s typically filled with disciplinary jargon and meandering, passive-voice sentences that are difficult to read. 

My first attempts in 2012 to approach publishers saw me brushed off because they presumed that I had written this. I was recommended a short book called From Dissertation to Book that would show me everything I had to change, only to read it and discover that I had done it already.

So it’s a happy irony that the same year I decide to leave the university sector entirely, I end up with a contract offer to publish the manuscript that began as my dissertation in environmental philosophy. Over the last few weeks since my Fall semester at Sheridan ended, I’ve been editing this text, and I’m about halfway through the chapter edits right now. There’s still a new introduction to write, which I’ll do after I finish these edits.

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is a weird book. I say this as its author. I just finished the edits on chapter four of seven, which is where I lay out the manuscript’s key concepts. You’d think this was a task for the first chapter, not the fourth. And in most circumstances, you’d be right. 

But Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is a weird book. Part of its hook is that it isn’t quite like other books of philosophy. The reason is rooted in my conception of what philosophy is. I’m not talking about the intellectual discipline, per se, but the definitive activity of philosophy, creating concepts. Creating new ways to understand the world itself, and the accompanying new ideas of what it is to be human.

The reason we need to create new ways to understand the world is always rooted in a political problem: a human civilization is doing something that has become extremely counter-productive, and we need to work out new ways to organize ourselves socially and institutionally to stop our self-destructive activity. 

Our current mistake is our enormous industry, the horrifyingly destructive industrial processes around which so much in our civilization is built. We need a post-human moment, a re-conception of what we are, to repair it. We can clean up the mess, but we need to change how we go about living if we want to avoid creating future messes. You can’t genuinely change humanity’s world if you change all the institutions while leaving the human soul, our conception of what we are and what we want, the same. 

This is absurdly difficult, of course. So difficult that I’m not even sure that it’s ever been done. The task of transforming the human soul into something better than it is today has been the central motive of every utopian movement that was worth the name. It’s the most profound ethical idealism in human existence, the call to be better than we are, and the belief that, contrary to all evidence, it’s actually possible. Philosophy is the application of human intellect and reason to this motive. 

The first three chapters of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity spells out my own account of the environmental crisis. We’re all familiar with it, but just as I have my own take on the answer, I have my own description of the problem, for which I develop a few concepts. But the really important concepts come after I’ve laid out the problem to which they’re an answer. To be continued . . . 

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