Introduction: A Social and Environmental Philosophy by Kenneth Wilson

This is the introduction to Kenneth Wilson’s thesis “A Social and Environmental Philosophy”

Parts One and Two of this thesis explore the traditional themes of action (agency) and rationality (reason) in a somewhat non-traditional fashion. I have put these traditional themes to a non-traditional use because the overall aim of this thesis is to solve a problem which is quite recent in origin; namely, what I will refer to as the crisis of modernity. Specifically, the crisis of modernity resides in the real possibility that as a consequence of our actions in the world, the future of life on Earth may well have been brought into question.

rubbish on the beach

There is a long established adage that one should, when planning, always take into account the worst possible scenario. That life on Earth could suddenly or gradually disappear, is the worst possible scenario I have in mind; and, it is one which I would like to do what little I can to prevent – hence this thesis. At first examination such a response to the crisis of modernity may appear unrealistic. However, the exercise of marshalling evidence and developing arguments in discourse is valuable and important because we are all, ineluctably, in the grip of ideas and the consequences of argument for our actions in the world. As such, I am an idealist if only in the sense that I believe ideas to be important.
Ideas of an apocalyptic end of the world as we know it have been part of mythic and religious belief systems, certainly in the West, for many centuries. What has changed is that some thinkers have come to realise the “end of the world” has in fact become a real, empirical possibility. One need only cite the fact that since the creation of nuclear weapons, there is a real possibility that an all out nuclear war could virtually destroy life on Earth.
That this outcome has been avoided so far, I take to be a matter of great, good luck rather than careful planning. Ultimately, an all out nuclear war would be the worst possible case of environmental damage. A more gradual, though possibly equally threatening process is the boom in the human population. (The Earth’s population is increasing at an estimated 90 million people each year. [1] ) As with the threat of nuclear war, the implications of the population boom are controversial.

[1: Joel E. Cohen, How Many People can the Earth Support?, (London: Norton, 1996), p.11. Cohen also points out that even if since 1990 all couples had only sufficient offspring to replace themselves, then the planet’s population would not stabilise until around the year 2150.]

Nevertheless, the general principle I apply here is that it is wise not to underestimate possible risk – it is better to err on the side of caution. With this in mind, the possibility that human beings could become so numerous as to endanger planetary life support systems is a possibility that one has to take seriously. Finally, the differential between North and South, in terms of prosperity could itself be deeply problematic. If everyone on Earth lived as profligately as do people in the North, then planetary environmental collapse may well be a real possibility due to the resultant use of natural resources and the pollution caused.
I do not intend the above to be an exhaustive description of the modern crisis; rather, I intend it to serve as a basis for the use of the term ‘crisis’ at all [2]. For the purposes of this thesis then, it is assumed that human beings do face a crisis. Given that we are on the brink of our own self-destruction, perhaps we can suggest reasons as to why this state of affairs has come about, and thereby suggest ways in which this worst possible scenario might be successfully avoided. By any standards this is an ambitious project.

[2: John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction, (London: Routledge, 1996), runs through many of the risks which threaten the continuation of life on Earth. In particular see chapter 1, pp. 25-80.]

This would be particularly true if the aim were to provide exhaustive, conclusive proof of the origins of the crisis and how it might be resolved. By contrast, my aim here is to examine a few of the most salient, problematic characteristics of the modern, western world-view (Weltanschauung), to the extent that they may have contributed to the appearance of this crisis. In particular, I focus on weaknesses in dominant conceptions of action and rationality.

environmental pollution

I describe my approach to the analysis of these key umbrella terms as being topic based. This is not a thesis about any particular philosopher, living or dead – though many are referred to. My interest in the discipline is fuelled by a concern to engage with current, contemporary ideas, rather than some aspect of the history of the discipline. For me philosophy is a living discipline about hotly contested positions and ideas. Consequently, I think Whitehead to have been quite wrong when he remarked that all philosophy is, as it were, a series of footnotes to Plato.
In preparing this thesis I have taken to heart Kant’s maxim that, to paraphrase, one should dare to think for oneself. In a sense then, my approach is that of the intellectual rather than the scholar. Moreover, if I might use the analogy of the painter, this thesis is painted on a large canvas, with several major motifs; as opposed to the miniaturist who might only focus on one. To extend this a little, I have in mind a group of figures (humanity) on my canvas who are doing something seriously wrong – and I would like to explain why.
Another aspect of my approach is that it is generalist, rather than specialist. I imagine that good Ph.D. theses could be written by expanding each of the chapters contained herein, but just one such thesis, were it ever written, would not capture the case I seek to make. This thesis may be seen as a synthesis which straddles and connects branches of philosophy which are usually treated in isolation from each other. It has been said that the most powerful of thinkers realise their achievements by thinking about the connections between issues and problems. I do not consider myself a powerful thinker, but I do think their methodology worthy of attempted emulation.
Thus Part One, chapters 2-4, deals with three aspects of action, agency or what people do. Each of these chapters examines a common or dominant model of what the agent is, and indicates difficulties and problems with it. Chapter 2 argues against the view in which the agent is normally conceived as being divorced from the biosphere in which he or she exists – a tendency which has been exacerbated by, for example, the development and spread of the urban environment. It is suggested that this model is erroneous and that its origins lie with the influential paradigm of Cartesian dualism.

Secondly, it is suggested that elements of a phenomenological approach may sow the seeds to correct this. For some these points may appear rather odd, but they are certainly not without precedent. For instance, Popper described himself as a post-Darwinian thinker, that is to say, he had come to see the agent as very much a biological creature.

Again, it is consonant with the developing field of environmental philosophy or with what some have called “ecosophy”. In a sense, the very sense of oddness that chapter 2 may engender is exactly what I have in mind. Is it not interesting that making the case for the connection with, and dependence on the biosphere, should appear philosophically odd? This sense of oddness arises because it is not normally at issue in mainstream philosophical discourse. Chapter 2, then, is a humble attempt to change this.

Chapter 3 argues that a further dominant and problematic feature of our model of action is that it emphasises the individual at the expense of human social reality. As well as being ontologically individuated, the agent is fundamentally a component of a social human reality. While there have been a few castaways and monks who have lived in splendid, hermetic isolation, most agents live in a familial, and indeed wider social context, which is vital not only for their very survival but also for them to be fully fledged persons. Thus the consideration of action from the point of view of the individual, is then contrasted with an examination of action from the point of view of groups, communities, or populations of agents. A key term which sustains this section is norm. As Bubner comments in the context of his discussion of Plato and Aristotle:

Socrates presents the example of a band of robbers who, although their maxims and methods are to be called unjust, must maintain order and justice among themselves in order to be at all effective. Socrates concludes that all conduct and accomplishment, all sensible action, must be inherently regulated so that it has within itself a recognition of and adherence to rules (leaving aside its moral quality according to social standards).

[Rüdiger Bubner, “Action and Reason”, Ethics, Vol. 83 no. 3, 1973, pp. 224-236, p. 227.]

Action is patterned and organised that we may achieve our ends. The subject in his or her growth to adulthood acquires norms regarding the correctness or appropriateness of actions. At the highest level of the normative organisation of actions, are speech acts. I argue that a condition for linguistic communication to exist requires that there is an important domain of social human reality. I avoid the consideration of action purely from the point of view of the individual – even although it is always the individual who acts – because more often than not actions are institutionalised by norms, and as such, they often take place in the context of inter-human synergy. Socrates’ band of robbers is such an institution.
Chapter 3 concludes by advocating a reassessment of the relationship between the individual agent and the social context in which he or she exists, in the direction of a greater sense of importance for the agent’s social context. In addition to this main point which is a key feature of traditional political philosophy, it is argued that, following on from chapter 2, an increased awareness of, and sensitivity to, social and collective goods is important in our relationship with the biosphere.
Chapter 4 considers action from the point of view of historical situatedness. Here I argue against ontological presentism. In its popular guise this is the idea that we have no duties or responsibilities to the past. This position might be taken by, for example, those denying the requirement for a public apology for war crimes. Thus against ontological presentism, I take the position that all agents are primordially connected to the past, to history. A main reason why this is so important is that what the agent does is contingent in many ways on formerly existing states of affairs. I believe it is a key characteristic of modern conceptions of the agent to see him or her as temporally insulated or isolated.

Indeed, those who take this position of putative isolation of the agent from the past are likely to be quick to deny the responsibilities of presently existing agents to the future. Clearly this is crucial if we are to hope that life on Earth will continue, in a flourishing way, for a long time to come.

Chapters 2-4 then, describe three key areas which are not normally addressed by action theorists, with few exceptions. It is often said that one is what one eats – more fundamentally, one is what one does. We have to think very carefully about what we do in the world if the modern crisis is to be resolved, and as such models of agency we might deploy are of crucial importance.
Chapter 5-7 of Part Two, which are about rationality, emphasise this point by examining three aspects of rationality which frequently guide our actions in the world. Broadly, Part Two can be read as unorthodox essays in the philosophy of mind, in that these chapters seek to further elaborate key characteristics of the modern, western world-view. Here I take the concept ‘world-view’ to refer to a system or structure of beliefs which characterise – if not exhaustively – what we think not only about the world we live in, but also about our relations to others.
Rationality is considered as the internal “dynamic” – or logos – which guides external action. For the purposes of the analysis, action (agency) and rationality (reason) have been treated in separate parts. This organisation should be seen as purely an aid to the analysis. Action and rationality cannot easily be separated and isolated from each other as different aspects of human being in the world. They are, in fact, intimately connected to each other, while still referring to different properties of human beings. Indeed, as Bubner comments,

“Reflection on what action is reveals the primary elements of reason, which itself is integrated into the structure of praxis.”

strip mines in the forest

This view goes against the more common, clear separation between theory and praxis [4]. Again, as Bubner makes clear, “Thus purposeful organisation, as the origin of action, and the unified regulated character of all its parts, attest unquestionably to the activity of reason in action.”[5] Bubner goes on to define practical philosophy as follows:

Action and reason are, then, the concepts which delimit the field of practical philosophy in a primary and very general way; to increase our understanding in this field is the genuine task of practical philosophy.[6]

This shows the key role played by both concepts in practical philosophy. Specifically the linkage between the concepts lies in a third, that is, goal or telos (or, as it is sometimes referred to, that-for-the-sake-of-which an action is undertaken). Actions are carried out to achieve some goal, and the goal is represented in consciousness and its rational, theoretical functioning. As Bubner remarks:

…no one acts just for the sake of acting, but rather for the sake of something else, for the sake of that goal at which the act is purposively aimed. In this purposefulness lies the basis for the existence of the act qua act.[7]


[4: Rüdiger Bubner, Op. Cit., p. 227.]

[5: Rüdiger Bubner, Op. Cit., p. 227.]

[6: Rüdiger Bubner, Op. Cit., p. 224.]

[7: Rüdiger Bubner, Op. Cit., p. 226.]

As such, acts are future orientated. Consequently consciousness must exhibit a future directedness. What is more, we may say that reason – logos – is what structures and organises our actions in their goal directedness. While the operation of reason in our actions looks, by its nature, to the future; consciousness also harks back to what has taken place not only in our life experiences but also in history in general.
Perhaps the greatest problem in this area is how the particularity of the subjective can be squared away with the generality of the objective. This arises because that which is rational is typically modelled as being general and objective, mathematics and science being the archetypical instances of this; and thus, in a sense, rationality is separated from the particularity and embodied nature of the agent. Empirically, we do know that some propositions can be held to be true over a domain larger than that defined by the individual subject. In other words some classes of propositions may transcend the particularity of the context in which they are created.
For example, consider the proposition that “the average adult human daily calorific intake must be at or about 2, 500 kcal.” This describes a universal about the human requirement for the energy food provides. It is true of humans in general not just of some given individual. Thus, we may create a proposition with a universal property, even while situated in a particular spatio-temporal context; and, to the extent that that proposition is universal, so also is it absolute. Calorific intake, it may be tentatively suggested, is an absolute and universal property, without denying that there may be variation in this relative to some given population or age group. Absolute and relative can get along together. The danger and confusion comes when this distinction is collapsed in favour of either concept. The thesis that all is absolute, tends to smack of authoritarianism; while the thesis that all is relative tends to lead to a radical subjectivism.
The truth-values of some classes of propositions are highly context-dependent (relative), equally others are highly context-independent (absolute). To see this we need only contrast (1) I felt a pain in my back between 10:00 and 10:15, because of the position I had been in while thinking, with (2) It is known, based on excellent standards of evidence, that the Earth is roughly spherical. Clearly (1) is highly context-dependent, since the truth or falsity of the statement relies on the status of an individual subject. At the same time (2) is highly context-independent, since the truth or falsity of this statement relies on the strength of inferential reasoning rather than the condition of some individual subject at a given time.
On the model used here the closer a proposition approaches context-independence then the more universal the truth it embodies. The closer a proposition approaches context-dependence then the more particular the truth it embodies. We can see that the principle of non-contradiction could behave differently under each of these conditions. That the Earth is spheroid and orbits the Sun, I take to be highly context-independent and is unlikely ever to be revised. (Where good inference and evidence are in place, so the Problem of Induction may diminish in importance.) In the instance of there being a pain in my back at a given place and time, this clearly may be subject to revision, if the pain disappears.
In this case what is true at t1 may be false at t2. It may be pointed out that the presently accepted model of the topology of the Earth has not always been held to be true. In medieval Europe, upto the time of Copernicus, the Earth was thought to be flat and at the centre of the universe. Of course this was replaced by the heliocentric view of the solar system, and the motions of the planets described to a high degree of accuracy by Newton. In accepting this, my point is to distinguish between changes in truth-value, across some time interval, in the case involving the individual subject, and that involving many individuals and complex processes of inferential reasoning.
The importance of this distinction lies in, on the one hand, accepting that what may be true at t1 can be false at t2; and more importantly, on the other hand, if one does not make this distinction between different types of variation, across some time interval, then one falls into the snake pit of relativism – which I am at pains to avoid. More generally, in making the case that truth-values can vary differently according to circumstances, one instates divisions in the epistemic domain upon which reason operates. (This is an issue I explore in chapter 8.)
Consciousness may suppose a set of propositions which are aspatio-temporally true. Thus consciousness would have context-independent contents [8], while, nevertheless, being spatio-temporally embodied. We can also add to the contents of consciousness a set of propositions which are highly context-dependent. Some propositions are only true once, at a given time and place, then their truth-value changes. In this context we can see that p can become not-p on a highly contingent basis.

[8: I use the term ‘contents’ and its cognate ‘contains’ as a short hand to refer to the neo-cortical processes taking place in the brain, which are responsible for the creation of propositions.]

On the other hand, in the case of the context-independence of propositions an assigned truth-value can take on a high degree of permanence. One may read context-independence and context-dependence as relating to absolute and relative properties of propositions respectively. No proposition is context-independent is the relativist’s cry, and the converse is the absolutist’s. Of course, instead of framing the argument in terms of all or nothing, we can usefully talk of some or most. (Even the spatio-temporal context of the embodied subject has an absolute quality to it. If I say that I have an itch and it is true, at some given time and place, then it is absolutely true – so long as it is true. The proposition is absolutely true relative to the subject (myself) who experiences the itch.)

tar sands

The trouble with such processes of proposition construction is that we know very little about them; since, despite recent advances in neuro-science, the brain remains mysterious in many respects. Nevertheless, the models which are created of reality whether philosophical, economic, mathematical, scientific or theological are deep windows into thought itself. Some sceptics may point out that such models are, as it were, purely expedient or procedural. In other words: What, if any, genuine understanding do they provide? It may be pointed out that the scientific developments of the last three or four hundred years have led to a world which is on the brink of its own self-destruction.
If this comment is to be accepted then we are forced to conclude that our models are seriously out of kilter with reality. If our models have led us to the brink we may ask: Why? Perhaps they are not as good as we believe them to be. We appear to act upon the basis of our understanding in the belief that it is adequate. In other words, for instance, if our models of the relationship with the environment were really effective, would we be facing the problem of climate change. We are inclined, I would contend, to overestimate the efficacy of our models; if this were not the case would we be facing environmental catastrophe and the disaster of international social injustice? I see this as the human tendency to attribute total and complete properties to what is, at best, partial and incomplete.

Gunnar Skirbekk comments:

A philosophy of modernity is a philosophy of crisis. In a post-metaphysical age, characterised world-wide by plurality and tensions, the quest for a universal rationality is a complex but urgent task [9].


[9: Gunnar Skirbekk, Rationality and Modernity: Essays in Philosophical Pragmatics, (Oslo, Norway: Scandinavian University Press, 1994), p. 9.]

A philosophy of modernity, of modern reason, is a philosophy of crisis; however, any given world-view is inherently metaphysical. So while we may be in a “post-metaphysical age” in the sense that thinkers such as Rorty claim that metaphysics has ended – which I think to be wrong – to the extent that there is a modern world-view it has an attendant metaphysics. Whatever a world-view may be, ancient, modern, oriental or occidental it embodies a set of propositions about what the world is like, what others are like, and these propositions may be so deeply held that few are explicitly aware of them. Merleau-Ponty expresses the idea that there is a characteristic quality to each world-view, to each civilisation, as follows:

“It is a matter, in the case of each civilisation, of finding the Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, not a law of the physico-mathematical type, discoverable by objective thought, but that formula which sums up some unique manner of behaviour towards others, towards Nature, time and death…”

This passage may be interpreted as indicating that Merleau-Ponty is talking about the world-view of any given culture. He makes clear that in discussing a world-view we may engage in interpretation – as he says it is not an objective science. The connection between action and world-view is that one’s world-view defines what kinds of actions are appropriate or justifiable.
As Habermas comments on the nature of world-views:

“The rationality of world-views is not measured in terms of logical and semantic properties but in terms of the formal-pragmatic [my italics] basic concepts they place at the disposal of individuals for interpreting the world. We could also speak of the ontologies built into world-views, providing that this concept, which stems from the tradition of Greek metaphysics, is not restricted to a special world-relation, that is, to the cognitive relation to the world of existing things [Seienden]. There is no corresponding concept in philosophy that includes relations to the social and the subjective worlds as well as to the objective world.”

This passage goes only half of the way to support my position that any given world-view is inherently metaphysical – even if there is something seriously wrong with that metaphysics. This comes about because a truly metaphysical description of a world-view must also contain an epistemological element, since metaphysics may be defined as that branch of philosophy which deals with ontology and epistemology together. Hence, if by post-metaphysical Skirbekk means that the role of metaphysics in our lives has come to an end, I cannot agree.
However, if by this term he means that there is something wrong with modern metaphysics, to the extent that it underpins the modern, western world-view, then I would agree. We are facing a crisis because there is something wrong with how we interpret the world and our role in it. This thesis aims to put more flesh on this position. That the crisis of modernity exists in the first place, suggests strongly that the modern world-view is somehow out of balance, or, put differently, our world-view has not been equal to the task of alleviating suffering on a global scale or securing the healthy continuance of the biosphere.
The overall aim of Part Two is to challenge the established orthodoxy concerning what counts as rationality. In the light of these concerns chapter 5 treats of the opposition between religion and reason and the issue of the autonomy of the modern, western world-view from its medieval antecedent. I look at the argument that the thought of the modern epoch is, in essence, a bastardised medieval theology. This chapter follows on from chapter 4 in that the autonomy of the modern world-view, of modern reason, turns out to be a matter of causation in human cultural reality.
I defend the secular autonomy – even though partial – of the modern world-view against the alleged influence of the medieval, theological world-view in the context of a discussion of Hans Blumenberg’s monograph The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Blumenberg argues in this monograph that, as its title suggests, the modern age has an immanent autonomy which cannot be accurately understood in terms of the legacy of medieval theology. In the course of this analysis I suggest some criticisms of Blumenberg’s position which focus on his under-estimation of historical discontinuity.


Consonant with my broadly pro-Enlightenment position, chapter 6 examines the relationship between science and rationality. Here I criticise modern, scientific rationality not from the point of view of epistemological scepticism or relativism, but rather in terms of the putative separation between science and ethics, between fact and value, between is and ought. I argue that fact and value must be connected if we are to be allowed a position of moral advocacy based on empirical fact. Moreover, it is argued that the re-establishment of the connection between fact and value cannot be achieved through recourse to possibly more holistic, pre-modern world-views.
The last chapter of Part Two, chapter 7, argues that the dominant economic orthodoxy of laissez-faire liberalism is irrational. I point out that there are viable alternative ways of thinking about economic realities, if only one dares to think about them. An instance of what I have in mind is the case of the resources which attend death in western societies. That people end up in graveyards or crematoria is largely a matter of cultural norms. In effect the “death industry” relies on a set of cultural practices without which it would not exist. A second, less morbid example, might be the brewing industry. If in our society it were unacceptable to drink beer, then there would be no public houses or breweries. Indeed there are societies in which this state of affairs exists.
One need only think of Saudi Arabia. Thus I argue against the position expressed by Burke that, “The laws of commerce are the laws of nature, and therefore the laws of God.” Moreover, I argue that economic realities are intimately connected to cultural practices.
Based on a separation between the upper and lower bounds of resource utilisation, I show the connection between the long established concerns of the political philosophy of international social justice and the more recent concerns of environmental well-being. This chapter concludes by attempting to demonstrate connections between the doctrine of “might is right” and laissez-faire liberal orthodoxy, as a further means of establishing the irrationality of the hegemonic, economic world-view.
In summary Parts One and Two take some of the salient features of the modern, western world-view and subject them to criticism in the hope that a more sustainable and sensitive world-view might emerge. The third and final part of this thesis, chapters 8 and 9, analyses two mediators of rational agency, namely, language and technology. I have used the term ‘mediator’ to indicate that language and technology have evolved to intervene in our actions in the biosphere.
Chapter 8 defends a realist account of epistemology, in the context of the philosophy of language, against relativism and idealism. The importance of this case arises from the threat relativism and idealism present to any position which at least attempts to point the way to a sustainable and just future. For instance, if 10, 000 people die of starvation when this could have been avoided, one has to seriously question the idealist who claims that the fact itself is but a creation of mind.

disappearing water holes

To a first approximation I come down very much in favour of a realist position. To a second approximation, it is important to note that there are many aspects of the reality we inhabit which are mind-dependent. Thus, while I agree with the realist who argues that the proverbial table is a mind-independent entity, there is also a sense in which the table is a creation of our minds qua designed artefact. To the extent that what we know is embedded in sequences of symbols this is very much a creation of mind, of consciousness. By contrast, linguistically mediated knowledge would be useless unless it connects in some way with domains of reality which exist independently of what we think of them.
Chapter 9 on technology qua mediator argues that the modern, western world-view is deeply embedded in a technological infrastructure which intervenes in virtually every action we undertake. However, in the light of the prevailing methods of distributing technologies (products) in the capitalist market, technological advance tends to increase the distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. In spite of this, the chapter concludes with an optimistic view of the potential of technologies of communication in particular, to enhance both sustainability and social justice, given the will to bring this about.
It is proposed that this thesis serves as a tool to aid in the analysis and understanding of the macroscopic problems we as a species currently face, by throwing into relief features which have made European cultural development distinctive, and in some respects – erring on the side of pessimism – pathological. I hope to show that the understanding of action, rationality and mediation given here, may serve to highlight the nature of such pathologies and their origin. If one can understand how modern, western culture has developed perhaps one may point to things which have gone wrong in the developmental process.

This thesis concludes with an Appendix, which, though it has a bearing on the position I take, is tangential to this. The Appendix, which is entitled Philosophy and Literature, examines the relationship between philosophy and literature.



POP = Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology Of Perception, (Trans. Colin French, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).
EHCT = Rüdiger Bubner, Essays in Hermeneutics and Critical Theory, (Trans. E. Matthews, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
CDP = Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, General Editor Robert Audi, (Cambridge: CUP, 1995).
LMA = Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, (Trans R. M. Wallace, London: MIT Press, 1985).
PDM = Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, (Trans. Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987).

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