Preface: A Social and Environmental Philosophy by Kenneth Wilson

The negative aspect of the idea of change moves us to sadness. It oppresses us to think that the richest forms and the finest manifestations of life must perish in history, and that we walk amidst the ruins of excellence. History cuts us off from the noblest of our interests: the passions have destroyed them for they are transient.

It seems that all must perish and nothing endures. Every traveller has experienced this melancholy. Who has stood among the ruins of Carthage, Palmyra, Persepolis, or Rome without being moved to reflect on the transience of empires and men, to mourn the loss of the rich and vigorous life of bygone ages? It is not a sorrow like that which we experience at the graves of those dear to us, when we lament our personal losses and the transience of our own aspirations: it is rather a disinterested sorrow at the downfall of the brilliant cultures of the past. (Hegel)[1]


The impetus behind this thesis is generated in a way similar to the sorrow Hegel describes at the demise of civilisations of the past. But it is not sorrow that we are concerned with here; rather, it is the fear that contemporary human civilisation may be on the brink of self-destruction. However, this may not constitute a passing away like any other. This self-destructive process may entail the passing away of the last human civilisation.
Three contemporary issues provide the source of this fear, global poverty, environmental degradation and the threat placed on human existence by biological and nuclear weapons. Thus the task is to identify and criticise the underlying common denominators which create the problematique composed of the difficulties just mentioned – without taking the position of either doom-monger, or of one who can with ease state that all is well with the world. As Nagel has pointed out,

The magnitude of the world’s problems and the inequality in access to its resources produce a weight of potential guilt that may, depending on one’s temperament, require considerable ingenuity to keep roped down.[2]

What sort of philosophical analysis is being employed? I have decided to be eclectic. As the thesis unfolds the reader will see the influence of both Continental and English language philosophy. This has come about as a consequence of my being unable to find a school or method which completely satisfies my needs and interests. However there is a limit to the eclecticism of approach. For example, I have not drawn upon either Chinese or Indian philosophies. The reason for this is that I have not chosen to carry out a comparative analysis of different, global philosophical traditions. Rather, I have focused on aspects of what the western tradition has to offer. However, I do believe much of great value may be learned from other philosophical traditions. But, before benefiting from other traditions I feel we must attempt to identify the weaknesses in our own.
In addition to being eclectic I have employed what might be called a “broadbrushed” approach. There are a number of reasons for this. Since my concerns are catholic I do not deal with issues in all the detail many would expect as usual in a Doctoral thesis. The limitation of space placed on one by this format normally entails that the author necessarily takes a narrow, specialised focus. I try to do something different in that I take a number of large topics for my analysis. The reason for this is that I feel much contemporary philosophy loses its relevance as a consequence of over-specialisation.
For me, philosophy at its best does not reside in splitting technical hairs. It has been said that while logic is rigorous, it is stripped of meaning. In my view the same is true of over-specialised, technical philosophy. It is distinctly possible such philosophy is actually immoral. I say this because I believe philosophers have a moral duty to use their skills for the benefit of humankind. Thus, when philosophers fail in this regard by being irrelevant, they fail to meet their obligations.
[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, (Trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge: CUP, 1975), p.32.
[2] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, (Oxford: OUP, 1989), p. 190.

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