Kamis, 12 Juni 2008


By : Bambang Sugiharto

Human civilization has never been so indeterminate like at the present day. We have the power and possibility to elevate ourselves to a higher level of humaneness, a qualitative leap in the evolution of our nature. At the same time we are facing a greater and unprecedented possibility towards total self destruction. The root of the situation is , admittedly, very complex. One of the most crucial factors , however, is the ambivalent growth and the peculiar character of our knowledge.
Along with the increase in knowledge at an incredible pace (it is estimated that the amount of scientific knowledge has doubled every ten years), a very powerful, yet elusive, violence has been growing unwittingly. The violence is powerful and elusive precisely because it manifests itself as the truth, that is, as the “universal”, “neutral” and “objective” knowledge of reality, and legitimizes itself in terms of very significant technical development and improvement of physical life, which is undeniable. In the name of scientific research and rational inquiry everything is called into question. Worse still, like a river which bursts its dams, everything that stands against their expediency is swept away. Thus, traditional knowledge, religious worldviews, rich and profound folk-tales –all kinds of intuitively achieved and existentially nourished wisdoms about our inherent relatedness to nature- are deprived of authority and legitimacy, and subsumed under the all-encompassing criteria of scientific critical reason.
Grave ecological crisis today is but a practical impact of a greater “ontological violence”[1] behind such peculiar scientific knowledge. The heart of the problem lies partly in the postulates used by science, but mostly in its modern ontological project, along with its epistemological ambitions. What is required, therefore, is not simply practical solution or strategy of action, but rather a substantive change of worldview and rethinking of how ontology, epistemology and science are to be conceived better today.

Modern Project revisited
The philosophical context of the above problems is the movement of thought originating with Descartes, culminating in Enlightenment, and perpetuating itself up to the twentieth century.
The seventeenth century had seen the real task of philosophy in the construction of the philosophical “system”. Truly “philosophical” knowledge had seemed attainable only when thought, starting from a highest being and a highest certainty intuitively grasped, succeeded in spreading the light of this certainty over all derived being and all derived knowledge. This was done by the method of proof and rigorous inference, which added other propositions to the first original certainty, and in this way linked together the whole chain of possible knowledge.
In the eighteenth century , the abundant flowering of knowledge and the substantial concrete changes it brought about in cultural as well as material conditions have made people of the Enlightenment believe that theirs was “the Century of Reason”, a “Philosophic Century” ( d’Alembert). Quantitative changes and expansion are always followed by a qualitative determination; hence the extension of knowledge inspires further inquiry beyond the periphery of knowledge, and this, in turn, drives one to rethink the centre and the essence of knowledge in general. In seeing multiplicity one is tempted to find a unity, to make sure that the breadth of knowledge leads the intellect back to itself. The philosophy of the Enlightenment, then, believes that variety and diversity of knowledge are the unfolding of an essentially homogeneous formative power called “reason”. Therefore reason should come to full awareness of its own activity, of the whence and whither, the origin and the goal, of its impulsion.
It is believed that reason is basically the same for all thinking subjects, all nations, all epochs, and all cultures. From various religious creed, moral maxims and convictions, theoretical opinion and judgments, a firm and lasting element can be extracted. And it would be something permanent in itself and would express the real essence of reason.
Such spirit and belief have always been at the heart of philosophy throughout its history since the antique Greek period. However, the eighteenth century has its own “differentia specifica” . For them the regularity, the order or the law are not to be found in the Greek metaphysics, neither in the logic of the scholastic, nor in the Cartesian purely mathematical concept, but rather, in the “logic of facts”. The mind must gauge itself constantly by the abundance of phenomena unfolded by contemporary natural science.[2]
While the seventeenth century was animated by the “spirit of systems” , the eighteenth century philosophers would not attempt to anticipate from the outset such “reason” in the form of a closed system. They would rather let the reason unfold gradually as knowledge of the facts progresses. This is the new alliance between the “positive” and the “rational” spirit.
The salient tendency of modern philosophy henceforth is that, on the one hand, it seeks to realize philosophy’s traditional goal of achieving a basic, universal and fundamental knowledge ( episteme, wissenschaft) of “what is” ( ta onta) by turning inward, into the knowing subject herself, that is, by ordering her own ideas according to the unquestionable laws of logic. On the other, it also seeks to represent as much as possible the objective reality in its positivistic rational certainty. The tension between the ambition of this metaphysics of “foundationalism” and the positivistic project of “ representationalism” perpetuates itself up to the twentieth century. After Descartes, Locke, Kant and Hegel, its last yet decisive echo we find in Husserl. Today we know very well that , ironically, Husserl’s phenomenology was in fact the swan-song of this whole philosophical tradition. The problem is that, on the one hand, such ontological project, especially with its primacy of the disengaged subject, has led philosophy to its highly “egological”, anthropocentric, and monolithic tendencies. And on the other, positive science, with its focus on the objective representationalism eventually tended to foster instrumental reason. The strange combination of both lines has resulted in the primacy of “ideo-logy” as the logical consequence of the self-sufficiency of intellect, in the development of a stance of exploitative domination of the world, and in the impoverishment of morality. And these are the deeper roots of the ecological problems.

The ambivalence of Phenomenology
Husserl’s life long ambition was actually to bring to fulfillment the innermost yearnings of such Platonic-metaphysical tradition as well as Cartesian ambition by finally putting philosophy into a posision of a rigorous science, strenge wissenschaft. He sought to discover an absolute foundation, a genuine fundamentum inconcussum, by “back to the things themselves”, that is, by return to the immediately given and original data of our consciousness, what he believed as “the first beginning”. Through the various “reduction” that he deployed he came to the concept of “transcendental subjectivity”, the pure and worldless ego. Thereby he moves from beings to meaning, from the ontic to the ontological level. The unceasing archeological probing of the realm of transcendental experience, however, eventually led him to his greatest and crucial point, which actually was to call into question his guiding idea of science itself, namely, the idea of the “life world” ( Lebenswelt ).
The life-world is the pre-reflective and pre-scientific world of lived experience on which all scientific constructs are built. From this follows that all scientific constructs are mere idealizations, abstractions from and interpretations of this pre-reflective world of immediate life. The “objective” world of science is but an interpretation of the immediate life-world which actually transcends or precedes all objectivistic-subjectivistic categories.[3] Now, in spite of Husserl’s own initial intention, this notion of the life-world ultimately undermines the very claims of science to a mode of knowing which is truly presuppositionless and foundational. What is crucial in Husserl’s line of thought, which has led him to such turning point and later on opens new perspectives for ontology is his concept of intentionality, the notion that consciousness is always consciousness of something, hence the statement “ego cogito cogitatum”. It is a combination of Cartesian themes of evidence and intuition with the fundamental Kantian themes of synthesis and constitution, and this eventually makes the notion of “reality in itself” as well as Cartesian disengaged consciousness absurd. Again, contrary to Husserl’s own intention.
Heidegger, who elaborated further the basic inspiration of Husserl, has shed new light upon the problem of “Being”,”Truth” and philosophy in general. The life-world, for him, in reality is nothing other than the existence, that is, Being which exists in the condition of temporality, hence in history and in the world. Ontology is the effort to disclose the meaning and the structure of Being. And this is to be done through the existential analysis, which is no other than what he calls “hermeneutics”. Philosophy, then, is phenomenological ontology which takes its departure from the hermeneutics of Dasein. In this connection, human subjectivity is not to be taken as a transcendental worldless ego, but as the concrete being in the world, which in its orientation towards possibilities beyond itself, is capable of interpretation.[4]
But it is Merleau-Ponty who paves a more definit new way towards doing ontology. Taking his point of departure in Husserl’s phenomenology of the Life-world, he shows that perception is our primordial contact with the world. Perception is the only mode in which the meaning of Being is originally constituted. And for the most part perception is pre-conscious, pre-personal, and not-yet-free. It is materialized by a bodily ego which is also preconscious. Now, since it concerns the preconscious level of existence, phenomenology is a matter of description, rather then of analysis (Husserl) or of interpretation (Heidegger). When I begin to reflect, my attention bears on an unreflective experience, and thereby I recognize that the world has priority over my own direct intellectual operation. For this reason, the real is to be described rather than constructed or constituted. Perception is the background from which all acts stand out and which all acts presuppose. Correlatively, the world is not an object whose law of constitution I carry in me. It is , rather, the natural field for all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions.[5] For humans a radical reflection amounts to a consciousness which is conscious of its own dependence on an unreflected life which is its initial situation. Therefore what must be understood and conceptualized in ontology is the way in which we are effectively interwoven with the world. In this framework, what we so far call “essences” or ideas in general are to be taken as means and not ends. Since our ek-sistence is too tightly caught up in the world to be able to know itself at the moment of its actual involvement, it needs the ideas in order to recognize and conquer its own facticity.
Philosophers since the time of Descartes have tried to solve all problems by pointing either to apodictic evidence or to eternal truths. For Merleau-Ponty, however, we are always already in the realm of truth, and it is the experience of truth, that is, the experience of the world, which is self-evident. The fundamental unity between myself and the world appears more clearly in our desires, emotion, evaluations and behaviour, than in our objective knowledge. It is this intentionality which furnishes the text of which our theoretical knowledge is merely an attempt at exact translation.[6]
Thus, Merleau-Ponty shifts the centre of gravity from subjectivity to world. Rationality is primarily embodied in the connection with the world in history. Therefore, all our knowledge is ultimately rooted in a ground of postulates which has emerged in history. Philosophy must make use of the world and of the meaning which is already constituted. But it must also interrogate itself just as it does every other form of knowledge. This is an infinite process. And if philosophy as ontology is to elucidate the meaning of Being, then the meaning is to be seen as appearing at the intersection of my own experiences and of the experiences of other people. The world is as inseparable from subjectivity as it is from intersubjectivity. This is also the reason why all my experiences in regard to the world find their unity only when I take up my past experiences in those of the present, and other people’s in my own.

An ecological mode of doing ontology
Through Heidegger , and Merleau-Ponty in particular, all the above story has eventually led to the primacy of experience. Today if we are seeking new way of understanding things , it seems that experience is the best vantage point. We can take it as the centre of gravity.
The strategy of quantification and measurement in the modern positivistic approach, in spite of its undeniable success, has also exacted a heavy toll. Many important and valuable things in human life are overridden, for instance : sound, sight, touch, smell, taste; and along with them, ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness and spirit. Hence experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse. If experience is taken into account at all, it is objectified in such a way that it loses its inner historicity, its characters as a process and as a unique event. Scientific method, including historico-critical method in the Human sciences, are concerned to guarantee that basic experiences can be repeated by anyone. Experience is valid only if it is confirmed. Its dignity depends on its being in principle repeatable. It is believed that for the sake of true knowledge, the pure use of reason is required. And this is accomplished when the particularity of experience is overcome by means of methodical principles. Hence Bacon’s method of induction seeks to rise above the irregular and accidental way daily experience occurs. Hegel sees experience only as a moment of consciousness in its dialectical process to be overcome by absolute knowledge. The nature of experience is conceived in terms of something that surpasses it. In itself experience can never be science. Husserl makes an attempt to go back genetically to the origin of experience and to overcome its idealization by science. But his preoccupation in the problem of consciousness renders him stuck in the realm of subjectivity -transcendental subjectivity. For this reason, his analysis substitutes the reconstruction of experience for an account of experience.
When we take experience as the centre of gravity, that which counts is the fact that our primordial experience of the world is the pre-conscious experience of undifferentiated unity between the inner and the outer world; the inter-relatedness of everything with everything. This primordial experience of unity suggests different way of looking at things, hence different metaphor. The significant shift is from objects to relationships. In the mechanistic view, the world is a collection of objects. These objects certainly interact with one another, hence there are relationships between them. But the relationships are secondary. When we see it in terms of unity, the objects themselves are to be seen as networks of relationships, embedded in larger networks. The relationships are primary. This is one of the most significant inspirations coming from the framework of a school called “Deep ecology” whose exponents are , among others, Arne Naess and Fritjof Capra.[7]
For thousands of years western philosophers have used the metaphor taken from the realm of Architecture. Hence they speak of “foundation”, “fundamental”, “ground”, “building”,etc. These metaphors proved to be no longer compatible with today’s development of thoughts. New metaphors are required. And the notion of “network of relationship” for the time-being seems to be more suitable for describing the complexity of Being. As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions too, form an interconnected network of concepts and models, in which no single foundation is required.[8]
When this approach is applied to systems of knowledge as a whole, it implies that philosophy or physics can no longer be seen as the most fundamental level of knowledge. Since there is no foundation in the network, the phenomena described by philosophy or physics are not anymore fundamental than those described by , say, psychology or even acupuncture. All forms of knowledge, whether scientific or traditional, are simply the various language games by means of which people come to some understanding of their experience in relationship with Being in the world. Following Heidegger and Gadamer, language is the fundamental mode of operation of our Being-in-the world . [9] Ontology, then, is to be understood more in “horizontal” instead of “vertical” perspective (transcendental and foundational). The ultimate meaning of Being and of knowledge is to be articulated neither in terms of monolithic grand system, nor in the data which is apodictically evident, but rather, in the richness and complexity of interpretations through various language-games.
The intersubjectivity already found in the tradition of phenomenology can be stretched further into intercultural and interdisciplinary relationships. What can be expected from such ontology is not a single transcendental and essential meaning of Being, but rather, the ever greater disclosure of its richness and complexity. While some philosophers like Rorty or Lyotard see such intercultural relationship as necessarily antagonistic, the relationship can also be seen as natural and healthy interdependence. When we draw a picture of a tree, most of us will draw a figure consisting of leaves, twigs, branches and a trunk, as an autonomous entity or system. We usually forget to draw the roots. Yet the roots of a tree are often as expansive as the parts we see. In a forest, moreover, the roots of all trees are interconnected and form a dense underground network in which there are no precise boundaries between individual trees.
Various types of knowledge are formed based on specific circle of question and answer, as well as on particular postulates, and in this way each creates its own autonomous network of concepts and models. These different networks, however, one way or another must have some interconnections with or overlap each other. Nothing natural is absolutely alien to each other. As autonomous systems they can compete with one another in terms of their capability to describe the real complexity of Being. As a mere node of the wider network, however, every system of knowledge finds its sources, differance, and legitimacy only in relation with other systems, in such interdependence that we can see it as nesting within , or living inside, one another.
In this connection, what is left for epistemology to do is to bring to consciousness what is concealed and closed off by those systems of knowledge , especially by the dominant ones –such as by techno-scientific project- due to their specific postulates and methodologies. Epistemology serves as ancillary discipline which, by way of hermeneutics, seeks to specify the actual mode in which a certain type of understanding occurs , or the ways in which its interpretations and idealization of experience are put forward, defended and believed in.
In its broad sense, then, philosophy does not necessarily mean an “all-encompassing” system of thought “rigorously” built, rather it can mean simply a reflective inquiry which is concerned with our entire understanding of the world. It is ultimately a reflective recognition of the finitude of all human claims to knowledge. And in this way it can play an important role in enhancing dialogue among different language games in order to achieve mutual understanding and enrich each other with new conceptions of the world. And by putting the human subject back into the primordial experience of unity, philosophy will revitalize and reinforce all modes of human fundamental interconnectedness with the larger networks, be it in the sense that humans are myriads of nodes of the network of nature, or that the natural-cosmic network exists inside them. This is a playful de-centering as well as re-centering of the human subject in a relational way. It is re-centering in the moral sense, namely, that as the most advanced offspring of natural evolution, human subject plays the role of “nature which has come to its own consciousness”, hence the most responsible for its dignity. It is de-centering in that the human subject is seen in terms of its unity with and as a node of the gigantic network of nature. This basic unity manifests itself more in psycho-physical level rather than in the intellectual level. It is more a matter of mystery and complexity of the so called “feelings”,which we might also call “the language before language”, through which all components ( inner and outer, microscopic and macroscopic) communicate with each other.
Viewed in this way, the connection between the ecological perception of the world and the corresponding ethical behaviour would not simply be a logical but also a psychological connection. If we have deep ecological awareness or experience of being part of the web of life, then we will –as opposed to should- be inclined to care for the living nature.
It goes without saying that in this perpective the classical dualism between mind and matter, subject and object, inner and outer, substance and form, quantity and quality, etc. is to be considered no longer relevant. Along with the primacy of experience the notion of “process” comes to the fore. And by that all forms of dualism are dissolved or transformed into an ongoing circular and non-linear dialogical process. And in such context perhaps what we usually call “rationality” would be better understood as a continuous playful adaptation of language to the continually expanding understanding, due to the dialogical process.

* The paper was written for the XXIst International Symposium of Eco-ethica,, November 1- 10, 2003, Kyoto-Osaka, Japan.
[1] The term “ontological violence” might sound exaggerating, but -for want of a better term- it simply points to the repressive side of the reductionistic ontology of positive science.
[2] Cfr. E.Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment ( Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1979) p 5-7
[3] Cfr. E.Husserl, Cartesian meditations, trans, David Cairns, ( the Hague : Martinus Nijhoff, 1960), pp 136-37)
[4] M.Heidegger, being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York : Harper and Row, 1962) pp 61-62
[5] Maurice Merlau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith ( New York : Te Humanities Press, 1962) pp viii-xi
[6] I b I d pp xvii-xix
[7] see F.Capra, The Web of Life, ( London : Flamingo, 1997) p 6-8

[8] Such conviction was formalized in Physics by Geoffrey Chew in his “Bootstrap Philosophy” in 19970s. The bootsrap Philosophy not only abandon the idea of fundamental building-blocks of matter, but accepts no fundamental entities whatsoever, no fundamental constants, laws or equations. The material universe is seen as a dynamic web interrelated events. None of the properties of any part of this web is fundamental ; they all follow from the properties of the other parts, and the overall consistency of their interrelations determines the structure of the entire web. See A.N.Whitehead, Process and Reality, ( New York : macMillan, 1929)
[9] see Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. P.Hertz,(New York : Harper and Row ,1971) pp121-23