Benjamin Hale
  Associate Professor, Philosophy and Environmental Studies
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
Campus Box 488
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0488


On Piers Stephens,
"Towards a Jamesian Environmental Philosophy"

I wrote these comments for the ISEE/IAEP conference in 2006. Don't know what else to do with them. To read Piers's original paper, go here:

"Towards a Jamesian Environmental Philosophy"

Our task as commentators is to summarize charitably the paper of our authors. I could go on for quite a while heaping praise on this article, but there aren’t many seconds in ten minutes, and so I’ll do my best here to provide first a structural overview of Stephens’s paper and then to get into a bit of the nitty-gritty.

First, his thesis: Stephens argues for a Jamesian environmental ethic. W ith its “radical empiricism, pragmatism and cognitive breadth” he thinks that James can serve as an “ideal framework” for an intermediate position that lies between the anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric perspectives. This would be a huge step forward for environmental ethics, should it prove feasible.

Overview: His strategy is therefore first negative, to defend James against his critics, and then positive, to offer his own reading of James, though even the positive section assumes a significantly defensive posture. The critics against whom Stephens defends James are, respectively (1) Max Horkheimer, (2) Eugene Hargrove, and (3) Holmes Rolston III. Horkheimer argues against James as dualistic, instrumentalist, and reductionist; Hargrove argues against James on multiple counts: that James is subjectivist, anthropocentrist, economistic and reductionist; and finally, Rolston argues against James on grounds that he is “a subjectivist anti-nature villain” who, purportedly, “rejects the notion of value in nature” (2).

First, to Horkheimer. Stephens notes that Horkheimer’s criticism is framed in terms of dualisms: man/nature; light/dark; intellectual labor/manual labor. He then explains that Horkheimer thinks of pragmatism as locked in a battle between means and ends, where pragmatism, at least according to Horkheimer, emphasizes the instrumental view. This, he goes on to explain, is said by Horkheimer to imply “egoistic domination.”

What does Stephens say to such characterizations? Bullocks! James’s philosophy was “explicitly designed to bridge the divides between reason and feeling, intellect and practice, subject and object.” This, after all, is precisely what Stephens finds environmentally compelling in James. He thinks that Horkheimer’s view of pragmatism can be understood as emerging out of Horkheimer’s own construal, or misconstrual, of pragmatism an “expansive worldview,” which is a mistake. Stephens explains that James views pragmatism as not as an expansive worldview, but as an explanation of epistemological method. And I am inclined to agree, so I’ll return to this point in a moment.

Then, to Hargrove. Hargrove associates Jamesian pragmatism with “economic utilitarianism,” finding it problematic because it is subjectivist, anthropocentric, economistic, and reductionistic. This is a somewhat convoluted charge, but it functions like this: Hargrove reduces James’s pragmatism to a subjectivist model in which individual interests are characterized economistically, and construed, therefore, anthropocentrically. Says Stephens: “In short, if pragmatism is to be repudiated as necessarily anthropocentric due to its ‘subjectivism’, this must assume the presence of an instrumentalist and/or economistic bias within the human subject as conceived by pragmatism.”

Stephens then parries Hargrove’s attack by suggesting that Hargrove’s conceptualization of subjectivism turns on a conflation of two views: the “locational fact that the human agent feels the experience, and the character of the valuing involved” (8). Stephens doesn’t spend much time elaborating what this alleged confusion is, though I’ll take a stab at an interpretation here.

What I take him to mean is that it is a plain truth about experience that we all more or less view the world from some situated, locational perspective. I see one side of the fire hydrant and you see the other. This is what I take him to mean by the term “locational.” But then there’s the “character” aspect of pragmatism, which interpreters have typically understood to be tied up in the locational. I think this does offer a response to Hargrove, if he in fact understands James’s subjectivism solely in instrumentalist terms, but I’ll return at the end of this paper to another characterization of subjectivism that, it seems to me, provides serious complications to the Jamesian view for an environmental ethic.

And finally, to Rolston. In response to Rolston’s criticisms Stephens argues primarily philologically, suggesting that Rolston has radically misinterpreted James’s famous text “The Moral Equivalent of War.” So, for instance, Rolston claims that when James says that values are “pure gifts of the spectator’s mind” (12), and takes from this that values are shot-through with subjectivism, that this misreading is due to Rolston’s entrenchment in standard Humean subject/object dichotomies. Instead, Stephens clarifies that James’s view is that experience is an “ontological category preceding the dichotomy of subject and object, and value is thus a part of any world we can know.” This strikes me as the sine qua non of the Jamesian view for the environmental ethic, and I hope that we’ll be able to discuss it more in a moment. Namely, what I will be asking of Stephens is why his strategy in advancing the Jamesian position has been to expand James’s emphasis on quiet introspection, and not to hit on the necessary pre-structures of experience that allow us to hop out of the subject/object dualism.

That completes the negative portion of Stephens’ paper, which puts us on better footing to understand his positive approach.

Positive: Stephens’s positive approach makes an argument through the back door. Rather than presenting James’s position directly, he assesses Dewey’s characterization of James and therefore simultaneously locates Dewey’s popular reading of James as both the root of the above attacks, and also as the stepping off point from which to read James more charitably. His attempt to re-read James through Dewey’s alleged mis-reading, recasts James as more of an experientalist, and focuses a great deal on the introspective elements of James’s position.

Quickly then, here are his main points.

The first step in Stephens’s positive argument lies in his distinctions between Dewey and James. He holds that Dewey’s James was overly “scientistic,” and that this is not an accurate picture of James. Instead, he believes that James should be read non-scientistically, where the subject does not vanish in a tidal wave of accumulated empirical knowledge, but acquires his presence by way of an idea’s emerging into or entering consciousness. Stephens claims that Dewey’s misunderstanding about James’s views on the subject and experience leads to the impression that James’s subject “vanishes.” In effect, says Stephens, James wanted to “I-Thou” the person, not describe the other person as a Deweyan “co-worker in a cooperative venture to realize some goal” (15).

From this, then, we are to recognize that Dewey’s emphasis on the social leads him to this reading of James; and that, instead, the proper way to read James is as encouraging the “quiet dimension of experience” that may have a “hidden meaning.” This emphasis on quiet introspection is supposed to inspire in us a recognition of pure experience and immediate values. It is supposed to draw us out of our everyday instrumental valuations and into an appreciation of nature.

Concerns and Questions:

I must say, I share many sympathies with this position. However, my sympathies stop at Stephens’s entry point, which is that James’s introspective account can provide the lynchpin for an environmental ethics. I’m perfectly fine with Stephens’s emphasis on James’s “I-Thou” argument, but if we’re to swallow this as an environmental ethic, we need an account of what’s so “Thou” about dung beetles, not an account of how we might naturally be drawn to think “Thou” thoughts if given a moment to extract ourselves from the means-ends world of tool use. Personally, I do think this account can be given, and I myself have made some gestures at an account inspired by Mead, but there’s nothing in this paper that gives us any such account; and a great deal, as it were, that leads away from this strategy.

Here’s what I mean. Stephens goes on for some time discussing James’s views on introspection. He even provides us with a handy tripartite schematic to help us understand this position. But we must ask here what kind of introspection is secure enough for a non-relativistic environmental ethics? What it is to watch snowflakes come down, for instance, varies wildly from subject to subject. When my wife sees snowflakes, she thinks of the beautiful New England winters. Presumably, it is these romantic associations that Stephens wants us to imagine when we think of the power of quiet reflection on nature. When I see snowflakes, however, I think of my time in Russia, which was frigid, brutal, and awful. I hate snowflakes. I can hardly see how Joe Leningrad will find quiet contemplation of Old Man Winter compelling for an environmental ethic. Too much quiet contemplation and he’s liable to pull out Roskolnikov’s hatchet. It is precisely this subjectivized account that provides problems for those who don’t want to allow James into the environmental clubhouse. So we need some clarification here.

Further, Stephens explains that James is concerned with “quiet” experience, where Dewey engages us in action. So here we must ask how “quiet” experience can provide for us an environmental ethics without falling into quietism. It would seem central to any environmental ethics—indeed, any ethics in general—that it be action-guiding. If the primary force of the Jamesian account is to drive us into our nomadic yurts that we may twiddle our mental thumbs pondering the glories of mother earth, then I’m afraid we’ve not gotten the environmental ethics that we desire. What we’ve gotten is fantasized cerebral sensitivity to the earth, punctuated by a cascade of “time out” moments.

This isn’t true, Stephens might object, since nature “draws us out of ourselves” (17). But does it really? If it does, this would appear to recast dramatically the “quiet introspection” that Stephens claims is critical to James. The very purpose of introspection, I should think, is to be drawn into ourselves. On a charitable read, Stephens seems to think that by specifying what it means to be drawn out of ourselves, we might better elide concerns that nature is interrupting the introspective. “What we are being drawn out of is a concern solely with our selfish prospects and plans…” And this is not at all clear to me. If James’s pragmatism is an “epistemological method” and not an “expansive worldview,” as Stephens claims, it is unclear how we’re to arrive at the substantive ecological positions necessary to an environmental ethic.

Finally, I’d ask for clarification from him on his “purity of pure experience”? According to James, the purity of pure experience still embodies “unverbalised sensation,” which Stephens thinks is important for environmental ethics. Stephens says that this has “germinatory” possibilities. What we are to find appealing in Stephens’ account, then, lies in what “men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illness or blows,” also find appealing. I will admit that such pure experiences provide a plethora of “germinatory” possibilities. The problem is that what germinates may be an unpleasant arrangement of lilacs and kudzu, of acidophilus and botulism.

It seems to me that Dewey is right to repudiate introspection, at least so far as James has conceived of it. This is a different concern than the concern articulated by Horkheimer, Rolston, or even Hargrove. Specifically, it seems to me that Hargrove’s account, at least as summarized by Stephens, does not hit the subjectivist nail on the head. The problem is not that James is stuck in a thin instrumentalism, but that he is swimming in a sea of undifferentiated and unvalued experience. The concern here is not, as it were, that we have abandoned the sense in which value and experience are “ontological categories preceding the dichotomies of subject and object,” and therefore have committed the same crimes against James as Rolston, but that given that these categories precede subject/object divisions, introspection cannot be a way of evading their pull. Even in introspecting we are always already caught up in the categories that form our understanding of the world.

I’m not suggesting that James can’t be understood as a thorough-going environmentalist. In fact, as I’ve said, I share many sympathies with Stephens. I just think that Stephens’ strategy, by focusing on pure experience and quiet introspection, rather than on the form of the experiencing, is liable to lead him into a straightjacket that does little but reinforce the subjectivism that has swaddled James since the turn of the last century.