Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Goethe and Environmentalism

Let me start out with something we can all agree on: Goethe was “exceptionally concrete and sensitive to environmental phenomena.” This appears on page 11 of the introduction to the special section on “Goethe and Environmentalism” in volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook. I would also agree that Goethe “was deeply aware of interrelationships in the natural world and the ultimate unity of nature,” and I can understand the desire to describe him “as a proto-ecologist.” The same can be said of dozens if not hundreds of nature writers, especially in England, in the 18th century, but I suppose that Goethe is of particular interest because he lived long into the 19th century, into the age of industrialization and of applications of technology deriving from new scientific methods. In other words, he lived long enough, if not to see, certainly to imagine the effects of the latter on the natural world, and here I also include humans.

Of course, a “deep awareness” of the unity of nature and of the natural world around us is not something that modern science is based on. Thus, Goethe in his own time was not recognized as a scientist by what we would now call real scientists. According to the authors, however, Goethe’s approach to nature (not really well defined in the intro) has become increasingly relevant in the past three decades because the “environmental crisis” we now face “is not simply a crisis of nature, but also, and even more fundamentally, a cultural crisis …” Thus, the goal of environmental humanities is to bring “Goethe’s approach to science” to bear and to help bridge the gap between (as per C.P. Snow) the “two cultures.”

Science gets the details, but ignores the big picture
 It is hard to see how that might be accomplished as “Science” itself has no view of the unity of nature. It studies the epiphenomena of “Nature,” without making any claims about the big picture. It is somewhat odd, however, but certainly a little refreshing to read that scholars now accept a reality beyond texts. There is really a “Real” out there, not just a construct of our imagination. Thus, environmental philosophy and ecocriticism seek to revive “‘nature’ as a theme of inquiry and … [to consider] the biosphere as an extra textual reality that is nevertheless intertwined with textual construction.” Ecology is both a model and metaphor for “the interconnectedness of all beings.” This sounds practically pre-Socratic or Platonist.

I see a big confusion in the use of the term “nature.” For environmentalists, nature seems to be the earth, the “natural,” yet non-human world, but the earth is different from “Nature” or “Reality.” Science is not the problem as it is the insights that inventive people have drawn from scientific discoveries. It is not so much the case that “modern science itself is technological in character and based on attitudes of controlling and dominating nature” as that scientific practice has led to practical applications that, indeed, lead to the domination of “nature,” or, better, the earth. Thus, the sights along the New Jersey turnpike that I mentioned in my last post.

These sights are repugnant to many of us in the modern world. I would include myself here, but I tend not to take an aesthetic view –– in the sense of moral view –– of the problem, which is the stance of environmentalists. An aesthetic view holds that everyone should think like me, thus the connection between aesthetics and morals in the modern world. (I find this already presaged in Kant, but more about that later.)  Morals, however are something that have gone out the window in the past few decades. Thus, what kind of philosophical grounding can be given for demanding a “moral,” caring approach to the earth? Goethe may have imagined that everything was interconnected, but on what basis do environmental humanists base such a claim, aside from an aesthetic one?

More to come.

Picture credit: Jenny Keller

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