SOCIETY & NATURE, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1992)



If, before the collapse of the marxist project, the methodological issue was always in the background of any debate among social theorists about the conception of society, with orthodox scientists grounding their world-view on the positivist method and marxists relying on dialectical materialism, the question of methodology also plays a crucial role, explicitly or implicitly, in today’s debate about the relationship between society and nature. In an attempt to present the main currents in this debate the general theme in this issue is the Philosophy of Ecology. The articles in the first part, entitled "The Methodological Issue" could be seen as a general introduction to the methodological debate, although their specific target is the discussion of the relationship between society/ liberatory project and scientific method.

The object of my contribution (Takis Fotopoulos) is to examine the problem of the lack of objective criteria in choosing among incommensurable theories and asks the question whether the issue of the liberatory project today poses a dilemma: either to adopt a modern objectivist approach, despite the problems inherent in such an undertaking, or to adopt a postmodern subjectivist approach and abandon any idea of a liberatory project, falling into what Castoriadis calls today’s “generalised conformism”. The author's answer is that there is no genuine dilemma and that not only it is possible to define ― without recource to controversial objective grounds ― a liberatory project that will constitute a synthesis of the autonomy demand and the demand for an ecological society but, also, that today, more than ever, there is an imperative need to do so. 

Marcello Cini, not accepting that scientific knowledge is either pure objectivity or pure subjectivity, attempts to show, within an analytical framework which explicitly takes into account the relative autonomy of the scientific sphere, the influence of the social structure in the process of the production of scientific knowledge. However, as he points out, a priori premises at the basis of the scientific discourse, which are influenced by the social framework, are not usually made explicit by scientists. Likewise, in the sphere of culture, it is not always obvious that behind the dominant culture of “mechanism” is not only ideas but social institutions and economic interests. Today’s emergence therefore of an alternative culture necessitates the focusing of the analysis on the importance of the social context with respect to the two critical for the project of an ecological society spheres, the sphere of the production of science and the sphere of the formation of culture.

The articles in the second part, under the title, “Ecological Dialectic” examine the basic elements of a dialectical analysis of the society-nature relationship. John Clark discusses the dialectical and naturalist character of the methodology of social ecology and shows, on the one hand, the simplistic nature of some of its critics’ claims and, on the other, the implications of its holistic and developmental understanding of organic wholes with respect to ethics and politics. 

Murray Bookchin sets the foundations of philosophical naturalism and stresses the incommensurability of conventional and dialectical logic. These two forms of reason, starting with different notions of causality, end up with very different conceptions of reality. Thus, to the empirical reality of conventional reason, philosophical naturalism contrasts the dialectical actuality which constitutes the fulfillment of a potentiality. The significance of Bookchin’s essay lies in the fact that it provides the ground for a genuinely objective ethics, as distinguished from an ethical relativism or an ethics based in the commandments of a deity. 

The articles in the third part, grouped together under the title “Social or Deep Ecology?” present the debate between the two main eco-philosophies; a debate that, not always explicitly, bears on the methodological issue. Irrespective of how “subjectivist” or “objectivist” deep ecology and social ecology respectively are, the discussion impinges on the question whether ecological philosophy should be founded on the dialectical method (social ecology), versus the positivist method, analytical philosophy and skepticism (deep ecology). 

Grover Foley, though sympathetic to deep ecology, is critical of its subjectivity that leads it to ignore crucial issues, like that of nuclear weapons, because they reveal bad subjectivity. However, as Foley stresses, subjective drives lie deep within “objective” science and technology, as their power character reveals.

On the other hand, Henryk Skolimowski, though also sympathetic to deep ecology, in essence charges it for...inadequate subjectivity, in the sense of lack of a methaphysical eschatology. Thus, the author, in an attempt to articulate an ecological cosmology, ignores (therefore implicitly accepts) the existing social structures and proposes that the only way to replace the dominant empiricist materialist-scientific world view is through a metaphysical cosmology !

Arne Naess's reply to the criticisms raised by Foley and Skolimowski, stresses that the unity of deep ecology is founded on the basic premise that the flourishing of non-human, as well as human, life has inherent value which is independent of its usefulness to human beings. At the same time, he adopts a fully pluralistic position both as regards the ultimate premises on which the biocentric premise can be based and also as regards political practice to implement it. However the width of this peculiar pluralism is crucially related to the narrow social content of deep ecology. Because, in contrast to both social ecology and eco-marxism, deep ecology lacks of any analysis of the relationship between the fundamental social structures (domination, in social ecology and exploitation, in ecomarxism) and the resulting ecological crisis. Instead, it emphasises the importance of values in forming eco-destructive economic and technological structures. It is the same narrow social content of deep ecology that makes it compatible with almost any form of political practice, from a capitalist or socialist state committed to biocentric policies to direct democracy and libertarian municipalism ! Furthermore, given that, as Naess stresses, we have to work with “Blue” or “Red” societies for the implementation of the biocentric principles, the supposedly wide pluralism of deep ecology ends up in a tacit acceptance of the existing social structures of domination, hierarchy and exploitation.

Robyn Eckersley, in a lively debate with Murray Bookchin, challenges his dialectical naturalism, both at the methodological level, as well as in relation to the scope of its ecological ethics. At the methodological level, the objectivity of the ends, that Bookchin's ecological ethics serves, is disputed, whereas at the normative level, the author attempts to show that Bookchin's ethics is not compatible with the kind of freedom promised, i.e. freedom in nature writ large; a freedom, which, according to Eckersley, only a biocentric philosophy can deliver.

Murray Bookchin, in his reply, stresses that Eckersley's criticism on the supposedly anthropocentric character of his philosophy arises out of the fact that she relies on a positivist method of analysis which, in the framework of analytical philosophy and scepticism, conceptualises reality in a very different way, with respect to the dialectical conception of reality that his processual approach offers. Bookchin, clearly differentiating his philosophy from both Hegel’s idealism and Marx’s dialectical materialism, sets the foundations of a philosophy where reality is organismic and where human and nonhuman nature are seen as a graded continuuum which constitutes a self-organizing and self-formative whole.

In the last part, entitled “Marxism and Ecology,” a dialogue is developed between on the one hand, James O’Connor, the main eco-marxist today and, on the other, Cornelius Castoriadis and Ward Churchill. The subject is marxist method, which is of crucial significance to the marxist project (“orthodoxy refers exclusively to method,” according to G. Lukacs) and which today is, possibly, the only raison d'être of marxism itself. Thus, James O' Connor attempts to develop an eco-marxist approach that integrates the ecological crisis into the traditional marxist analysis, i.e. what he calls “a political-economic 'scientific' discourse”. The author, using the marxist theoretical tools in an ingenious way, concludes that the contradictions inherent in today’s production conditions reveal a universal demand, which is also implicit or latent in new social struggles, to democratize the state.

Cornelius Castoriadis, in a particularly significant contribution to the methodological question, contrasts the marxist attempt to found the liberatory project on “science” with the imperative need today to strengthen the autonomy project, which can only be founded on the political will of the self-determined citizens. 

Finally, Ward Churchill, in the theoretical part of his article, examines the marxist method from a completely different angle, that of the indigenous world-view. The author, in a significant contribution to the discussion, pointedly criticises the euro-centric character of marxism; a fact, which had important implications on the way Marx perceived not only the Man-Nature relationship, but other cultures as well.


Takis Fotopoulos, Editor