Wondering If I Missed Something, Research Time, 16/07/2015

When I wander into a bookstore or across a bookstore’s outdoor bins of bargain books, I believe in good fortune. Sometimes, I pass by a book and it literally calls to me, and if I don’t buy it at that moment, I put it on my list to buy later, either when I have the money or its price drops. 

I had one of these moments last month when I was visiting Hamilton. As I was walking around James North, I paused by the bargain bin of a bookstore, and found Toward a Transpersonal Ecology by Warwick Fox for only $7. I just finished reading it last week, and I’m glad I did. 

I bought it with a sense of trepidation. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity draws significantly on the transpersonal, ecological conception of subjectivity that Arne Næss developed in his writings. 

I build on that concept to create a template for an ecological transhumanism, a self-conception that can overcome humanity’s selfish, hubristic, ecologically destructive behaviour by becoming profoundly aware of our interdependence and integration with the rest of the world. And I explain how to use that self-conception in a model of political activism through personal inspiration and person-to-person social networking.

Seriously, buy my book. The hardcover is still very expensive, however, but I'm working on getting cheaper alternatives available.
Ecological conceptions of selfhood understand yourself as primarily one
dynamic element of your ecosystem, planet, and universe.
You see, I only saw Fox’s book for the first time as I passed by that bargain bin, when the EEFH manuscript had already been approved and was going through its final pre-press checks. It was much too late to add any new content to the book, aside from minor typesetting corrections. So if Fox was saying something that anticipated or invalidated what I had developed, I’d have a serious credibility problem.

Why hadn’t I read this book, when EEFH’s bibliography is already nearly 30 pages long already? Surely, I would never have been able to pass my dissertation without building a totally comprehensive knowledge of my fields? Well, just what constitutes comprehensive knowledge varies wildly, depending on who you ask.

In an age where university libraries face financial and budgetary pressures of their own, a university’s own holdings will be less comprehensive than the entire archive of relevant research for a project or field. Some universities that have had to cut their journal subscriptions or book purchases can still expand beyond what they’ve acquired themselves through inter-library loans. 

But not all universities can, and something will always escape even the most networked library loan agreements. And as an individual researcher, there’s simply too much potentially relevant material for every research project for a single person to find, read, digest, and synthesize into a manuscript in a reasonable amount of time. 

You have to draw a line somewhere, and drawing that line is often a serious source of anxiety for a researcher at any age, but particularly one in the vulnerable position of a student at the start of her writing career.

This is one of the many problems that universities face today, the growth of the archive of relevant material beyond the ability of any one person, or even one university, to access it all. 

Arne Næss, Norway's greatest philosopher and a major
influence on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.
My research for EEFH includes Næss’ own writings throughout his career, secondary material on his work largely drawn from journals, selected works to give the reader a sense of how environmental moral philosophy has developed over the last century (and in more detail on the last 30 years) in North America, and a variety of other materials that have related Deleuze and Guattari’s process philosophy and scientific fields like biology, systems theory, and ethology to environmentalist thinking. 

And that’s not a complete description of the literature I drew on to shape my ideas. For our era, when absolute comprehensiveness is physically impossible, you have to draw a line not with an objective, universal measure of comprehensiveness, but instead with a limit: When a reasonable person will say that you’ve done enough research to back up your points.

So I was relieved that Fox’s Transpersonal Ecology, despite appearing at first glance like a book that anticipated me, was actually very modest. It suffered from several unfortunate academic conventions that prevented it from being more progressive when it was released in 1990 than it could have been.

Its writing style was too conventionally academic, filled with those phrases that expand verbiage while saying nothing. Whole paragraphs and sections would be spent describing what he was about to discuss before he even started discussing anything. 

What Transpersonal Ecology ultimately achieves is limited by another unfortunate tendency of academic writing: demonstrating his own knowledge rather than progressing our knowledge. 

Fox spends almost all of the book summarizing and arguing against established arguments in European and North American environmental moral philosophy, else explaining and critiquing Næss’ own philosophy, and giving some background in psychological research on what makes a transpersonal conception of yourself possible. 

By the end of the book, he only ever describes in general terms what a transpersonal conception of the human subject would be, and includes long sections of quotations from allied writers who describe the same in their own general terms. He doesn’t develop that concept in any detail beyond broad gestures. 

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity spends more than half its space working out how a person would understand her subjectivity in a transpersonal sense, what scientific concepts would ground that self-understanding, and how to spread that self-conception through political activism and daily life.

I guess that makes another reason why I’m glad I’m pursuing my writing career outside the university sector.


  1. Don't knock the author: He could be you in another thirty years! http://www.warwickfox.com/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transpersonal_ecology

    1. The author is a fine person and an excellent researcher and thinker. I just think that one book could have used some more ambition.