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Philosophy of Nature

Compared to the craze about their most famous 17th century painter, Rembrandt, the Dutch treat their most famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, with heavy neglect. Just recently an African professor narrated me how strange it was to him to try to find the house where Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, stepping from the bus and seeing no signs. And how strange it was to him as well to notice that the house itself didn’t provide much information about his life and work. He is not alone. Many of those visiting the Netherlands from all over the world try to find traces of the famous philosopher, and find not more than a few crumbs. Crumbs that would not even have been there but for the hard work of a few dedicated volunteers…

Today I had a meeting with one of the volunteers involved in trying to do something about this, by writing texts to be provided in the one room in Spinoza’s last house in the Hague, which can be visited two hours a week. Wim Goris has done his own research into several aspects of Spinoza’s life, such as his food, his means of transport, and also of his death – to wit, his burial. We were having a coffee in the building next to the little elevated grassfield in the center of the Hague, where Spinoza’s remains are supposed to have been scattered with many others. Wim explained that the café used to be the house of the warden of the New Church where Spinoza had been buried by his friends in a rental grave of 12 guilders. And naturally, we were contemplating the little amount of interest there had been up till now on the precise facts of his burial and what had happened to his bones.

That there had been a grave was not even known to me before. I had visited the monument on the burial area several times, but had never thought much about Spinoza’s bones, as I had this vague idea that they were scattered and never had a clear location. Of course I had my photo taken there as many others will have too. But I had – I confess – thought more of how to use it on social media than of the remains of the thinker with whose work I had communicated on a daily basis for almost nine years, when I did my PhD research in the 1990s.

But now, over coffee, we spoke of why his philosophy still appeals to so many readers, even if it has so often been misinterpreted even by serious scholars. It must be because he reflected on life as it is. On its finitude and the sense of eternity that we can even have amidst all change and perishing. On the connectedness of human life to all other life, our bodily, emotive, thinking and spiritual constitution – he tried to think it all together in an age that tried to split it all up. That must be one of the reasons why there is so much interest in his work in places like Japan, and in most African countries – places where practices of life as connected and interconnected have been preserved amidst the inevitable disconnecting forces of modernization.

Duting that conversation I suddenly wanted to know, for the first time, where the bones are, like one can in the case of a Christian saint for whose remains a golden box is placed in a cathedral, or at least a stone vault. I noted by myself that it is not stupid to want to connect to the actual remains of someone whose life has added greatly to human understanding. It helps to be aware, in the moment, in the body one is in now, of the meaning he created, or channeled in his life.

Drinking our coffees, we had to comfort ourselves with the realization that his remains were at least somewhere in that little grass field outside the café. They will have been returned into the cycle of life to such an extent, after three hundred plus years, that he will be there just somehow, in the place, in the air maybe even.

I gave myself a challenge, by indicating I would talk about “Humanity’s place in nature, according to Spinoza and Ubuntu”, when asked to speak at the yearly Spinoza Summer Week. I did so this morning, and it was a truly philosophical session. What I mean by that I will explain below.

The summer week is organized by the Dutch Spinoza Society, a club that dedicates itself to maintaining the houses where Spinoza lived, and making them accessible to the public, as well as to furthering the academic study of his work, AND the study of his work by interested readers. This happens in reading circles and in the week, each July, for which a theme is chosen, to which speakers are invited – this year it was: Spinoza and Ecological Thinking. And it was done in a rural environment suitable to philosophize.

As reading material (yes, the participants prepare themselves in a serious manner, which creates meaningful sessions) I had given them a series of propositions from part I of the Ethics, and an article by Michael Onyebuchi Eze – Humanitatis-Eco (Eco-Humanism). The article argues that African Philosophy on Ecology goes beyond the anthropocentrism present in Westers-style Environmental Ethics, by focusing on a decentered, Ubuntu-style, cosmology of nature. The main point, as I pointed out: we should forego the desire to ‘fix’ the environment we need for our species, and start to learn about the sacredness of trees and rivers, as well as of the relations of the living and the not-yet-living generations. A certain awe, materially practised (don’t destroy the bark of a tree that protects your village), will change the human relation to nature in a more profound manner than moral prescriptions for protection of environments can.

We read quotes from the article, as well as from and about Ramose, Mbiti and Tempels. The upshot: a certain orientation in life is more important for ecology than technological fixes driven by limited perspectives (we should save species x). This orientation is informed by the idea that all of nature – be it in individual creatures or in species, or even forces such as wind or water, is an expression of ntu (divine energy) that flows through all being (ubu). This view – I say it hesitantly, translating in a western philosophical word – means there is a certain subjectivity, a certain awareness in all the differentations that make up ubuntu-nature.

This was an imperfect communal attempt at dialogical, intercultural reading, as all dialogical crossing of worlds is by necessity. Now we took the next step: to try to elucidate this through Spinoza’s ideas on conatus and immanent causation – and vice versa. These words were key, where Spinoza says that in the same way in which we may say that God is its/her/his own cause, we may say that it/he/her is cause of all things. (Proposition 25, part I). Every individual and individuated being thus, against the Aristotelian mainstream that declares it to be contingent, gains a certain necessity and inner divine-ness. This does not mean – I warned – that one can deify one’s ego. What is divine is this power to differ, to vary, to be individually different itself, not the form which it takes. The creative force, so to speak – my audience paused and wondered – the ‘ntu‘. So now I had done it, I had used that African concept to explicate Spinoza’s idea of immanence.

Followed a discussion whether Spinoza should be understood to be a metaphysician, and what ‘metaphysics’ means when it doesn’t involve transcendence. Spinoza ‘naturalized’ metaphysics, I said – claiming there is no ‘beyond nature’, but there is a beyond our distorted, desire driven understandings of the world as revolving around us (anthropocentrism). And now ubuntu – is it metaphysical? In this Spinozistic sense, perhaps? I argued yes, when we understand that ubuntu thinking of nature doesn’t recognize the Cartesian dualistic cleft in the world that Spinoza had to deal with to begin with. The physical and the spiritual (matter and mind, thinking and extension) are not separated, thus the metaphysical is always already in the changing, contiguous phenomena we perceive.

This was not a lecture, I called this morning a ‘session’ on purpose. I provided the materials and the main questions, which then interacted with the questions of the audience (the discussion on ‘metaphysics’ was not prepared but arose there and then) and led to a kind of shared, while individually diverse, certainty we had grown in understanding. One participant came to me and thanked me ‘for not using a powerpoint’ – they overload you with knowledge, he said, and there is no shared learning and thinking. Well that made my day of course – I am not against powerpoints, they can be very stimulating in the right context, but this – reading texts and discussing them from shared questions – truly philosophizing – remains the best!

Just recently my first single-authored book in English came out – I wrote it after becoming so frustrated at conferences that I could not share my books with the increasing numbers of non-Dutch colleagues whom I befriended. I had written 5 books, but all of them in my native language alone… Of course, there were articles – but they are always limited in scope, and cannot transfer so well one’s philosophical intentions in a wholistic manner. There are the blog-posts as well, and I know they are well-read, but they do not contain the argumentative structure and reference-basis that make the academic work a joy.

This was a lucky book. I was asked for it by the editor of the Environmental Humanities Series. The reviewers of the proposal understood what interdisciplinary debates I aimed to interfere in, and liked my writing style. The people at Routledge, as well as their external copy-editor, were all so nice and helpful. I do not write this to boast, but to express my gratitude – that hard work and pushing on despite many odds payed off. I hope the book will raise more awareness that academic philosophy needs to include indigenous people’s voices, to decolonize its attitude, to become inclusive – to undo, moreover, its discriminatory politics of epistemology, which excludes the voices of ani(mal)istic spirits – to our loss.

When a project like that – which took years of research and many months of writing – has been finished, my first reaction is always: oh, now I can read new things again! Because, during the writing you should not, to not confuse the framework you built in dialogue with a collection of focused readings (the reference list at the end of the book). A friend noted, seeing my new collection of readings, that I always focus on violent things. Well, no, that is not true. One has to focus on what limits freedom and happiness, however, if one aims to think towards finding the key to make them accessible more. One of those social media games asked to show a favorite book each day for five days. I didn’t have time and posted five books which were important to me in the past, and five which I am reading now.

You see. It is not much academic philosophy. I read that too, of course, more than the picture shows. Disciplinary philosophy should however always enter into dialogue with what happens in our world today. And in today there is much history. History which asks for eternal re-interpretation, as it still works out in the present. Much violence of today is still the effect of the so-called ended Cold War, or even of the colonial politics of European powers in the 19th century. If we do not try to understand those forces better, they will keep a hold on our policies – limiting our options to act as human beings with a choice.

My book on our Relations to Nature is also not a romantic turn to pre-modern ways of life. It is a study into the philosophical foundations of the most silent war of our times – the war of modernity against nature, and of the moderns (as Latour called this destructive tribe) to the indigenous peoples that understood differently how humans should live in and with nature. Almost every day an ‘earth-defender’ is being murdered somewhere on the globe. And a large portion of them, reports say, are members of indigenous peoples. You do not read this in the news. But it is most relevant to understand the problems of our times…

On the 29th of March this year, I got an invitation to attend a conference in Calabar, Nigeria on “Marginalisation in African Philosophy: Women and the Environment”. It was not just an open call for papers, I was invited, together with other delegates from different countries, as “The colloquium is intended to assemble a tight small circle of active scholars in the fieldchairing-olajumokes of women studies and the environment through African philosophy.” Having been reading myself into the field of African philosophy for more than 10 years, supported by my own tight small circle of friends with a similar interest in the Netherlands, I was much honored that my work now paid off, and I was actually invited over!

Now I have been back a week, and still I am only starting to oversee the wealth of thoughts, themes, and contacts I have been put in connection with. The organizer of this event, professor Jonathan Chimakonam, is also the driving force behind the homegrown Conversational School of Philosophy at the University of Calabar. As usual, a good conference cannot be materialized without the help of students – who in this case did more than they would have in a Western-European context, where catering, transport, and such things are more abundantly available. Another common element of conferences is a table for purchasing books. I had up till now seen no more exciting book table as the one here – because the books for sale would be very hard to get in Eimg_3879urope, and their authors are neither very well known over here. At the same time, they contained fresh and intriguing philosophical approaches, that would be able to not just diversify, but challenge, Euro-American curricula. A distinguished American colleague, who clearly was experienced with this aspect, probably had brought an empty suitcase, as I saw her purchase a pile of books. I noted by myself to do the same would I to be able to visit another conference in Africa, but satisfied myself this time with just two titles, by Dr Ada Agada and Prof. Innocent Asouzou. But I will read more than was available in Calabar, as some titles are published this side of the Sahara, for instance by the Dutch African Studies Centre. The writer of one of these books, Dr Pius Mosima, of Cameroon, was also presenting and told me about the series.

My own paper focused on the subtheme of the environment, and presented the importance of a hermeneutical approach to create a dialogue between the different approaches to trees in an African context. The approaches distinguished were those of conservationalists, adherents to monotheistic religions (in this case Christianity and Islam)img_3815 and traditionalists. I showed that the different frameworks of these groups are negotiated regarding questions of conservation or cutting of trees. As negotiation is in essence a play of power, I proposed to move it to dialogue, in order to first understand and discuss the different meanings that are attributed to trees, hoping to promote a better communication, and thereby a more sustainable relation between humans and their environment. In the days before I gave my talk, I was amazed by all the beautiful trees in Calabar, of species mostly unknown to me. The picture shows a very impressive tree at the university campus where we gathered for our sessions. I felt as if the trees welcomed me. And so did those present, giving very stimulating comments and questions to my paper.

Before I decided to go to this very rewarding conference, having never heard of Calabar before in our closed-off European philosophy institutions, and hesitating still, as the trip would take a whole week out of my teaching preparations, I searched for some information. It was a little youtube video of the students (of whom I now count some among my friends) telling about what philosophy meant to them that actually won me over. Philosophy in Calabar, Nigeria is just philosophy, as it can be found all over the globe. But all the same it is more alive than in most places I had beeimg_3821n before. Perhaps because material circumstances of studying and doing research are unimaginably harder than in the rich country where I happened to have been born and raised, African philosophy seems to focus more on real world questions, is more engaged, and therefore, I would say, more relevant. It will take time to process all the new insights I gained, to read up on all the new books and articles I encountered. In the meantime I already enjoy writing and exchanging with so many new philosophical friends I encountered.

As a motto to my own lecture I took a quote from the famous African revolutionary and thinker Amilcar Cabral on the ‘Africanness’ of African thought and culture, and I might as well conclude with it now, as it sums up what I experienced and shared in these encounters:

“The important thing is not to waste time in more or less hair-splitting debates on the specificity or non-specificity of African cultural values, but to look upon these values as a conquest by a part of mankind for the common heritage of all mankind, achieved in one or several phases of its evolution.”

Amilcar Cabral 2007, Unity & Struggle. Speeches and Writings, Unisa Press, Pretoria, p. 180.

Photo credits: Moses Ogah Irem (the paper session) and Angela Roothaan (the other photos)

 

“What kind of relationships they may desire to have with us? And how can we, collectively, find new ways of co-existing?” These were among the questions in the Call for Papers of a short conference I attended last week, on Animal Agency: Language, Politics and Culture. It was the most interdisciplinary conference I ever attended – with speakers from Art History, Cultural Geography, Philosophy, Linguistics, and more fields. It was organized by Eva Meijer, who, during her PhD research on Political Animal Voices is very active to organize exchange among those working in some way or other with questions around our relations with animals. I learned a lot. About the history of certain cows in Urugay, who were brought early on by the Spanish, turned wild and reached 48 million and then were killed off for industry and trade when the country became more populated. It was the research by anthropologist Maria Fernanda de Torres Alvarez, currently working in Montpellier, which taught me that. Another researcher, Mihnea Tanasescu, working in Brussels, enlightened us about the Nazi history of the rewilded Aurochs that is prominent in a Dutch rewilding project, the Oostvaardersplassen. And there was more, on animal language, on painting elephants, on animals in poetry…

I had undertaken the experiment, for my presentation, to try to not talk about animals, but to let an non-human animal have the word. But how to do that?  I chose to use the method that is common to writers of novels, when they embody a person from another sex, age, or culture. It is comparable in a sense (although the setting is different) to the method used by traditional shamans, who enter a trance state to communicate with (a.o.) the spirits of animals. The animal invited to ‘speak’ uses my knowledge and language (that is why he sounds as a philosopher), but I have tried to suppress my point of view of the world, to let his shine through. The first one to come forward was an old crocodile. Just a few quotations:

“As the spirit of crocodile, I call myself ‘grandfather’, because you think that my genetic structures were earlier than yours, and we left some of ours, through the course of species-transformations, behind in your body and mind. So if I call myself grandfather, you can 1) understand our relationship, as you understand it biologically and 2) it will bring you (I hope) to have respect for me – as you should towards your human grandfather, even if he has no teeth anymore and spends his days in a boring home for elderly people.”

(when asked why he eats us)

“I am sorry, but how can you ask that – without being aware, the moment that you speak, of what you have done to us? You have not only eaten us, and continue to do so to this day. Look it up, please, on your internet – you can even buy, for instance in the UK (imported from South Africa), crocodile burgers – 2 for 3.99 pounds. So you eat us. But more, you have made shoes and bags from our beautiful skin. You have used our body for medicine. Considering me to be your grandfather – those are rather cannibalistic acts, aren’t they? And you have done more – you have discriminated against us, called us names. You have called us primitive and cruel. You speak about our heritage as ‘crocodile brain’ – and that is not meant as an honorable adjective, as I understand it!”

(telling something about himself and about us)

“I am the master of fearlessness. I lie still, sure of myself, that I will have to die, and having accepted that as long ago as I can remember. […] I lie and wait, still, very still, to be able to come into action in a split-second – with all the forces I master in my body, to catch what was coming toward me from eternity. I have a hard time believing you are the superior race, running around and mastering nothing, not even your own forces, not even your own body, or your mind. But what can I say. I didn’t see you coming, so I coudn’t catch you and kill you before it was too late. You came to destroy our habitat and kill without remorse. But now you have somehow grown strong in your foolishness, and I don’t know what to do about it…”

I slightly reworked these passages from my paper, and they will be reworked more as I hope to publish them somewhere else in the future.

After the conference I learned even more, as several contributors were so kind to send me materials connecting to my paper presentation. Certain of those will certainly be read more intensively by me in the future – the works of Australian environmentalist philosopher Val Plumwood, who lived through an attack by a crocodile, and we are lucky to be able to read what she learned from that. Not to hate crocodiles, that’s for sure, but to view our own species differently – “as part of the food chain – eaten as well as eater.” More about that another time perhaps.

As promised, I will come back to last week’s conference, held in a Seminary in Lodz, Poland – where I presented mIMG_3413y paper with the above title. As usual, I stuffed in many different things – a methodological question (deconstruction versus decolonization), the relation between speciesism and racism, a note on the history of philosophy/ideas, and the question what characterizes (our) animality. Yes, I managed to boil it down to a 15 minute presentation, and those present pointed out many loose ends to help me rework the paper for the submission for publication. So here is this short version (missing some of the argumentations, but presenting the main ideas) of this work very much in progress:

Aren’t we Animals? Deconstructing or Decolonizing the Human-Animal Divide

“From the influential Thomas Hobbes on, who claimed that ‘natural men’ were like wolves (taken as violent predators) to each other, Western philosophy has been characterized by a great distrust towards the animal aspects of our humanity, and a great trust in the salvaging aspects of reason and civilization, that would raise us above the animals. Several recent thinkers however have attempted to criticize and undermine this attitude. Among those I will discuss anthropologist Eduardo Kohn who aims to decolonize the Western approach to nature (plants and animals), and philosopher Jacques Derrida, who sought to ‘undefine’ the concept ‘animal’.

In my paper I will oppose these different approaches to the human-animal divide, and will also relate them to the work of postcolonial philosopher Emmanuel Eze, who has brought to attention that white Enlightenment thinkers and their successors have been interpreting embryonic evolutionism and theories of progress in the sense that some groups of humans would be less ‘human’ than others – and therefore could be used as slaves, or as objects of ‘civilizing’ projectswe would now describe as cultural genocide. I will conclude by presenting the thought of psychoanalytic thinker Frantz Fanon, who highlighted the consequences of ‘animalizing’ human beings in a certain manner.

 

Selves and signs – In his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn explored Amazonian ways to understand animals and plants as ‘thinking’ – as living in sign worlds that overlap with ours, making communication on an equal level possible. He relied for this project on the philosophy of signs of pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. What Peirce did, Kohn explains, was to move beyond the understanding of signs as representation of something else (before an ideal rational subject) – taking them to “stand for something in relation to a ‘somebody’ [which] is not necessarily human […].” (Kohn 2013, 75) For selves are all ‘somebodies’ that are taken up in semiotic ‘activity’. Through many interesting examples taken from Amazonian village life he shows that not only animals, but also plants, and ‘spirits’ are selves – thus widening the ontological class of sign-users beyond the human to all ‘living’ beings, with or without bodies.

Deconstructing Animality – In a small, but profound study, Patrick Llored has made an effort to reinterpret the work of Derrida as, in effect, an enduring attempt to think animality. According to Llored, this is not a purely philosophical, but an existential matter to the philosopher of difference. Llored shows that early experiences of living in Algeria, especially in its ‘Vichi’ variety – leading to the expulsion of the Jew Jacques from school, formed the source of Derrida’s discovery of the link between racist and speciesist repression. And of its counterpart: the vulnerability of all living beings to violence (which is characteristic of animality).

In his own essay on the animal, Derrida indicated that deconstruction of the human-animal divide has three essential elements:

1) The divide (‘rupture’) doesn’t define two clearly separated domains – of ‘human’ and ‘animal’

2) The multiple and heterogeneous border of this divide has a history (the autobiographical history of anthropocentrist subjectivity) and should be traced as such

3) Beyond the human side (which is heterogenously lineated) there is not one category, ‘animal’, but a “multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead” (organic and inorganic). (cf. Derrida 2002, 399)

 

Enlightenment Racism – In Derrida’s work, we see the articulation of the intimate relation between speciesism and racism. This exemplifies his remark about the heterogeneous borders between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ animals. Not only are the animals not all one group, but certain groups of humans also segregate themselves from others by calling them animals. Even today, racists repeat the same imagery tirelessly, calling their targets animals, monkeys, pigs, or cockroaches.

In his work on Race and the Enlightenment Emmanuel Eze has shown, through textual analysis, that the Kantian and Hegelian construction of the idea of humanity as the center of ‘our’ understanding of the world (‘all philosophy is anthropology’) – was built on the simultaneous construction of an ‘other’, a not-quite-human: the ‘savage’, the black man. This other was not granted a culture of his own, let alone a political or legal system. Thus Kant could think that “the lives of so-called savages were governed by caprice, instinct, and violence rather than law [which] left no room for Kant to imagine between the Europeans and the natives a system of international relations, established on the basis of equality and respect […]” (Eze 2001, 78) And Hegel that “The negro is an example of animal man in all its savagery and lawlessness […] we cannot properly feel ourselves into his nature, no more than into a dog.” (cited according to Eze 2001, 24

The Need for a Psychoanalysis of White Philosophy – In Black Skin, White Masks(1952), young psychiatrist Frantz Fanon gave testimony of the difficulties of a colonial subject, a black man moving to the ‘centre of the world’ – to Europe – to affirm himself as a man and as a human being. The gaze from the other, which makes him black, confined in his skin, empties him out before he can speak. His revolutionary book is not your usual philosophical discourse, building a thesis on assumptions and by means of argumentation. It is written in a form which expresses what it tries to do: to think not from general concepts, but from failures.

To rescue his black reader from the objectivaton and dehumanization even the social sciences do unto her/him, Fanon articulates the humanity of the black person, although this should not mean integrating himself into the European idea of a supposedly non-race-sensitive humanity. This ‘Hellenistic’ idea of humanity, namely, considers black persons to be like animals (Fanon 2008, 127) – biologizing and sexualizing them, whilst desexualizing the white man as universal reason. In order to evade this dangerous situation, Black Skin, White Masks, seeks to submerge itself into the shadow side of white culture, and to investigate the fake aspect of this ‘animality’.Thus, although Fanon has the black individual in mind for his liberative project, implicitly he also criticizes, pre-figuring the Derridian approach, the idea of animality (being described as predator behavior, being driven by sexual urges, etcetera) in general as an artificial biological objectification.

 

Conclusion – In the end, we may conclude that decolonizing and deconstructing the human-animal divide, although they are different approaches, aim, in concert, to what we need in our days: first, an appropriation of the position of thinkers and selves by those colonized and animalized, exposing those who called themselves civilized and masters, and making an end to their reign; second, and simultaneously, a becoming conscious of (white) Enlightenment philosophy of its own shadow – cultural and physical genocide, enslavement and dehumanization of others, and in the shadow of that shadow – the brute desubjectization, use and abuse of ‘animot’; third, the deconstruction of the ‘rupture’ that has turned a difference into an instrument to torture and kill, and to not hear the voices of those we supposed to be ‘on the other side’ of humanity – the supposed ‘savages’. But also: the thinking forests, the wild animals, even the ‘domesticated’ intimate strangers living with us – having been equally colonized, under the cover of the civilization of ‘humanity’”

Literature –

  • Jacques Derrida ‘The Animal that therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418
  • Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 1997
  • Emmanuel Eze Achieving our Humanity. The Idea of a Postracial Future, Routledge, New York, 2001
  • Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London, 2008 [1952]
  • Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think. Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press 2013
  • Patrick Llored Jacques Derrida. Politique et Ethique de l’Animalité, Les Éditions Sils Maria asbl, Mons, 2012

I often realize how much this blog is a conversation not just with you, my readers, but also with myself. Keeping a log is a bit like keeping a diary, but with a more specific subject – it will not cover every possible thing experienced, but those experiences connected with a certain journey. A journey which has several aims – to discover, to experience, to learn, to gain certain benefits, and more of which one is not aware beforehand. This makes every journey an adventure. Just as with the journeys of the seafarers of former times, who wrote their logs while travelling the world seas.

My log covers adventures in philosophy, which, as my motto states, understands itself as involved, or engaged. All the same, I live my adventure as a member of academia. This brings with it that many of my days are filled with solving puzzles relating to study programs, new blackboard (the internet space with that name) features, keeping a balance between work and home life, getting to know new colleagues, keeping up with faculty politics and university policies et cetera et cetera. In between I try to focus my reading and writing to reflect on specific questions, and fields of investigation.

Concerning this lastmentioned activity, institutionally labeled as ‘research’, there are very different seasons. Just as Kuhn said about the scientific community, the individual researcher too lives through phases of ‘normal science’ – working out certain specific questions in a given framework – and phases of ‘revolution’ when one questions the frameworks themselves. Writing my blog makes me more aware of what I am doing at the moment. I became more aware especially of what happens in those times that I do not write very often: in those times I am often questioning the frameworks, perhaps not in a revolutionary manner, but certainly as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Lately there are many conferences with themes that interest me, and I am lucky I can attend quite a few of them. This experience, of something ‘brewing’ around me, makes me happily aware that ‘my’ process is getting more interconnected with the processes of others, and can find a stronger momentum just by the force that interconnectedness creates. Suddenly my interests are all over the place: the relations of humans and animals, of humans and nature, questioning the concepts of ‘humanity’ and ‘animality’, questioning modernism as a result, and some of its neighbors – eurocentrism, scientism, and an imperialism which is political and epistemic at the same time.

While last week, in Utrecht, at a conference called ‘What is it to be human? On the Humanities and practical self-understanding’ I enjoyed discussions with mostly philosophers on the meaning of ‘humanity’, at present I am preparing to join scientists and theologians to jointly question human uniqueness. This will involve presentations considering extra-terrestrial life, the relation between human beings and their God, and understanding humanity in nature – with contributions considering Chinese philosophy, Buddhism, the Quran… a wonderfully diverse program. My own presentation will be on the human-animal divide, asking: what is the difference between deconstructing and decolonizing it? I will look into the differences between these two approaches, and will discuss wherein they overlap. There is only one little problem I still have to solve – how to summarize the substance of my five pages paper to a presentation of only ten minutes… I will keep you posted.

The research I did for my PhD thesis on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the late eighties and the early nineties, left me with an aversion for the idea of an esoteric philosophy. I had set myself to reading the works that were seen as authoritative studies on the TTP in those days, and among them were those that made a lot of work of discovering the esoteric philosophy that would be hidden in the so called exoteric texts of Spinoza. I could understand that the deep and difficult roads travelled by Spinoza inspired readers to imagine that there would be something even deeper and more mysterious between the lines – hidden kabbalism for instance. The problem was, however, that those same interpretators ignored some very obvious and explicit things Spinoza said about religion. It didn’t make sense, as he had risked a lot to be so open about what was important to him.

Just the other day, however, the idea of an esoteric philosophy came up in another context. I was attending a lecture of a Dutch colleague, who was speaking about studies he had done which were somewhat outside the field of ‘official’ academic philosophy. He said that he would not write the insights they had given him down until he was more certain about what he wanted to claim, and he joked this to be (for now) his esoteric philosophy. The idea not to write on things before one can give more than just an opinion on them is close to my heart, so I could relate to his statement very well. It reminded me of the ten, fifteen years that I worked to say something well-founded on what I have called here anim(al)ism, a concept I am still exploring further. It is a broad term for relating with the world while recognizing ourselves to be among animals as among relatives, and even among other non-human souls, and to be able to communicate with them in other ways than the rationalist and empiricist epistemologies recognize.

I thought that I had come far in this respect. Until just yesterday, when I had an unexpected experience. I was with academic friends, the theologians with whom I have been sharing research on ethics over the past 15 or more years, in our research group on theological ethics. Being, I think, the only non-theologian by training in the group, I am always very careful not to claim anything ill-founded on religion, and because of that I try to stay very close to my personal discoveries in the field. One of the nice colleagues asked my views on ‘revelation’ – which made me quite uncertain. As a philosopher one tends to think of Heidegger and Husserl on hearing that word, but I was certain that he was hinting in another direction – and he was, more in the direction of Karl Barth. I could not position myself in the academic theological debate on the matter, but still wanted to answer him meaningfully. I tried to word very carefully how my intuitions on ‘anim(al)ism’, on shamanism, and my encounters with the different ‘Abrahamic’ and some Asian religions had formed my views, and how this all made me see the Christian idea of ‘revelation’. I confessed that I had thought about this for quite some time, and would love to write more extensively on it, but wouldn’t know how to ‘sell’ the plan – being an academic philosopher and not a theologian of Christianity.

Then, slowly, it dawned on me… there was some esoteric part in my own philosophical existence too… but I don’t like that. Speaking and writing have a different format, and academic writing has quite a few demands which sometimes forces one to let some part of one’s thinking remain ‘esoteric’ for now. The aim is to study, however, just as long as necessary to be able to write one’s insights down properly, in a discussion with the relevant and knowledgeable authors. So much still to be done!

 

I have never called myself a Marxist. Or a Spinozist. Marx and Spinoza are to me just thinkers, who added important new viewpoints to our understanding of our human selves and our human world. In their attempt to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, they created as many (philosophical and actual) problems. Confessing to the thought of one of them would mean to think those problems are not there, or can be overcome, which I do not. I have sometimes made an exception to my habit of not confessing to the work of any thinker as work that I could almost always in some way agree with. Sometimes I call myself a Derridian – to me that is less problematic, as Derrida never aimed to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, but just wrote endless commentaries to deconstruct any claim to universal truth. So being a Derridian is actually inconsistent in itself, and therefore less problematic to one who thinks, like me, that there is no such thing as a consistent philosophical view. Consistency is not nonsense, of course, but it is just a norm, indicating what we should strive for, like politeness, or maturity – no more.

Still, some months ago, when some colleagues were having drinks at a conference, continuing our learned conversations in a more easy tone, someone said that I lived in an Eco-Marxist bubble. Although I was rather surprised, I found it very funny, and immediately after my friend had crafted this expression, I knew I would be using it for my blog. The more so as it was used to describe the mindset of my internet personality, who was supposed to see the world through the filter of this epistemic shelter. Although it was said jokingly, I could understand that it was still meant to contain some real description of me. And I also immediately understood that it related to the subjects I tweet about on twitter. Indeed they often include articles that criticize how mining and deforestation threaten the lifeworld of indigenous peoples – the eco-part. As well as articles that criticize social problems created by neoliberal capitalism (the Marxist part). Still, I never was a Marxist, and I never adhered to any ecology movement or ideology.

Why, then, do I tweet about these subjects? And how do they relate to what I think about and write about here? My friend forgot one aspect, which is not so ubiquitously present on my twitter timeline, but that is because there is less interesting news about it – that is the aspect of the spiritual, especially in its more anim(al)istic manifestations. This forgotten aspect explains a lot about my interests and concerns, though, also those of a more ‘socialist’ and ‘ecologist’ character. It clarifies what motivates the other tweets. Let me first make it clear though that I am neither a spiritualist, a new ager, or a romantic traditionalist. I just take the approach to ourselves and our world that is often called animistic, and which I would rather call anim(al)istic, very serious. And I don’t do that because I fell for some new Latourian fashion. I have from a young age known this approach to make sense.

I would never argue that we should take more care of the planet because we would otherwise destroy it, or because otherwise the future of humankind would be at risk. We should take care of the world we live in, because taking care in itself is meaningful and makes life better. There is just nothing attractive or meaningful in using up everything around us and transforming it into waste. It hollows out our life, and that of the other creatures around us. I would also never argue that wealth should be distributed more evenly for the sake of making an end to the reign of capital, or to create a classless society. I would not know what that would mean, nor if it would help us. I do think however that amassing wealth on one side, and creating poverty on the other, should never be a goal of one’s actions, as that makes – again – no sense. It is ugly. Destroying nature and giving the economy complete free reign makes for a very ugly world. So is my position an aesthetic one, then? Again, no. I do not value beauty in itself. It is just one of the things to enjoy, like tastefulness, warmth, or bodily movement.

The point is, my hunch is, that, first, a human life can be best enjoyed when one knows one’s limits – having enough to not constantly think about food or money, and not so much that it creates its own worries. That ‘enough’ is not exactly the same for everyone is okay by me. My hunch is, secondly, that in conditions of ‘enough’ one can most easily search those experiences that create real joy, and those are of the relationship kind. Enjoying the shadow of the tree, the whispering of the grass, the flowering of the weeds, even the torture of the wind on a stormy day. Enjoying the kindness of animals, and among these, the kindness of our fellow-humans. Also their otherness, that challenges our own being. Their mystery that makes us wonder. That seems to be a good life for most of us.

It is generally called animistic to value grasses, winds, and other things as things with which one can enter into a relationship. Yet we do so all the time. Not just with natural things, but also with those of our own creation. We miss ‘the old house’, we grieve a thing that has been broken, we get frustrated at an instrument that doesn’t work. As I said, I take that approach very seriously, as it makes me understand a lot of our behavior. So why add the ‘al’ – creating the word anim(al)istic? To remind us that we are animal, and that the other animal is our relative, and that we can best learn from our close relatives how to be animal in a better way. We humans constantly wander astray from our animality, which is strange, to say the least, as it is the beginning and the end of all human life.

 

I like it when new and unread books are standing on my desk, waiting for me to read them. In my student days in the eighties of the last century, when course programs where published in a booklet in the summer, I used to get the new prescribed half meter of books as soon as possible and put them there in front of me – creating the excitement of anticipation for the next year of study. Nowadays my years of teaching have no end, they are like a circle that begins again when it reaches its fulfillment. Studying has become an even greater joy as it is my reward when course administration, grading, actual standing for the classroom leaves any spare time. Among those new books have been, for some time, the titles by two Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s think. Preparing my next conference paper, the time to read them has come (and I have to make haste to get my presentation ready in time!) Although very different in style and argumentation, both books show in unison that much creative philosophy is done outside philosophy departments. Here we have anthropologists who delve into the works of philosophers to question the ontological presuppositions that stand in the way when they try to understand how their research subjects, ‘non-Western’ peoples, understand the world and interact with it.

While still reading the introduction of Kohn’s book I got a pleasant surprise – that it will be the old pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who will provide for Kohn the groundwork for understanding how forests, and animals, all living creatures for that matter, think. Kohn announces that he will draw on ‘the “weird” Peirce [that is on] those aspects of Peirce’s writing that we anthropologists find hard to digest – those parts that reach beyond the human to situate representation in the workings and logics of a broader nonhuman universe out of which we humans come.’ This made me happy as it again brought me back to an important period in my years of study: following the courses of one of our most excellent teachers – Gabriel Nuchelmans (1922-1996), who taught philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. All very broadly understood. Nuchelmans wrote sturdy and thorough books on philosophical problems, and specialized articles that were just as thorough, all of which will only be familiar still to those who specialize in the history and philosophy of logic. As a teacher he just passed on some of his wide readings in whatever interested him. One year he passed on his knowledge of pragmatism – and although at first I did not know how to fit this in with my mostly ‘continental’ interests, over the years my notes of this course would be the only ones that I always kept – which in retrospect can be seen as a predicting sign of my later return to the material.

For years it was mostly William James that interested me, first his Varieties of Religious Experience, and later his Pluralistic Universe. Works that I still consider to challenge standing frameworks of thought and to be indispensable if one tries to begin to build a critical ontology of the spiritual. In the article by Eugene Taylor which serves as an introduction to the centenarian edition of the Varieties, I read about the influence of Swedenborgian thought on James, but also on Peirce, as both longtime friends participated in the circle of James’s father, and in experiments that aimed at understanding spiritual communication. I only knew Peirce as having contributed to logic and philosophy of science/epistemology, so this came a bit as a surprise to me. But now I find that Peirce’s ability to think beyond philosophical modernism, seeing relation and signification  as the basis of thought rather than immediate intuition and mental clarity (which one can call the unfounded dogma’s of modernist thought) – forms the inspiration for those that are creatively moving beyond modernism by different paths, as Kohn does while trying to understand the world as understood by the peoples of the Amazon.

When I will be reading along, I will not only follow Kohn’s path of a semiotics of the forest, but I will also remember the mysterious smile of professor Nuchelmans when he spoke about Peirce’s weird categories of ‘firstness, secondness and thirdness’. And also how this old-fashioned professor lifted his hat for female students, calling them ‘mevrouw’ (mrs) – and then again how he left his comfort zone of the history of logic when he felt the need to criticize Heideggerianism. Then his face gained more color, and his voice betrayed suppressed excitement – and one felt the echoes of the struggle against the irrationalities that had swept over Europe only fourty years ago. Nowadays Nuchelmans’ suspicions of Heidegger have been vindicated by the publication of Heidegger’s explicitly racist notebooks. But that is perhaps not the most important thing in which Nuchelmans’ teaching put up signposts. More important was how his own work showed that digging into abstract stuff like logic, grammar, and structures of thought did not have to lead away from real world issues. As goes for the work of the ‘weird’ Peirce – which invites us to think the human in relation to the non-human in a thorough philosophical manner – work that is very relevant in these days, when it becomes more and more visible that the human, all too human issues that have led modern civilization, are destroying the possibilities to lead enjoyable lives for so many. Let’s try to read the signs of other ‘living ones’, and forests are not the least among them.