Collapsing the Distinction Doesn’t Resolve the Contradiction
Perhaps, given the ecological and civilizational peril humankind now faces, we can get back to the question of what makes our species so different in nature, rather than vainly trying to pretend that we’re part of nature. The ‘we’re part of nature’ trend reaches back into the past and holds up philosophers who poured the supposedly firm foundation of understanding upon which we are supposedly now standing. The German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, for example, is held up as an avatar of sophisticated ecological thinking, someone who both foresaw the crisis between man and nature, and provides a way out of it. In truth, Schelling’s “explicit intention of collapsing the distinction between nature and spirit, substance and subject” fits hand in glove with the clever form of avoidance and denial of man’s contradiction with nature that’s so fashionable among anthropocentric solipsists today. It’s also the ultimate example of begging the question. For if the legions of New Age followers believe that the distinction between man and nature can be readily erased, then how did we get here, a supposedly free, sapient creature bringing about the Sixth Extinction in the history of life on Earth, treading dangerously close to the cliff of ecological collapse? Schelling’s project, as one of his philosophical fans puts it, of “increasing the anthropomorphization of nature in order to counter-intuitively protect it against humans” is not counter-intuitive at all; it’s a flat-out contradiction that explains nothing, remedies nothing, and ideologically contributes to the decimation of the Earth. With Schelling and his latter- day aficionados, man’s consciousness is recapitulated with a child’s emerging consciousness of self. Never mind that the self is inherently separative and conditioned — the replicating root of human alienation from nature. “At the first moment, when I am conscious of the external world, the consciousness of my self is there as well,” Schelling said. In colloquial terms, congenial to our veneration of the self, it translates, “the self is at center stage of our relationship with nature.” That’s a nice psychological trick, but it doesn’t philosophically wash. As one of Schelling’s followers puts it, “his philosophy of oneness became the heartbeat of Romanticism.” Indeed, but does anyone seriously believe that romanticism is the way ahead? It’s true, is a pundit recently noted, “science’s rational approach created a distance to nature, and the external world became something investigated from a so-called objective perspective.” It’s also true that “no matter how much scientists observe and calculate, there seems to be a more emotional and visceral connection between humankind and nature that cannot be explained with scientific experiments or theories.” But that doesn’t mean, “As long as I myself am identical with nature,” as Schelling insisted, “I understand what living nature is as well as I understand myself.” As nice as that would be, it's meaningless. “I myself” cannot be identical with nature, since the self is the first separation from nature. We don’t have to return and resign to Christianity’s cornerstone of “original sin” to see that the first and ongoing mistake of Homo sapiens is subconsciously carrying over the functional ability to separate ‘things’ into the psychological and emotional sphere. Beware of straw men. I’m not returning to “dividing the world into mind and matter.” Descartes’ Cartesianism was the prelude to modernity, not the source of our existential mistake. It was just a key iteration of the primeval separation and alienation between humans and nature, codified as the separation between body and mind. Idealism or romanticism of any kind cannot paper it over, since separation and division form the roots of who and what we are as humans. “Collapsing the distinction between nature’s substance and the human subject” is a philosophical fool’s errand. We cannot resolve the distinction, indeed existential division and contradiction between humans and nature by pretending it does not exist, or by romantically whitewashing it, only by observing ourselves in the mirror of nature. If you start from the premise that “the thinking subject cannot be fully transparent to itself,” then what are you left with except trying to cloud the contradiction between the inherently separate self and the seamless wholeness of nature? So can the thinking subject be fully transparent? The thinking subject cannot be transparent as long as the subject is thinking. Right observation, which is essentially the action of attention minus the infinite regress of the observer, allows the entirety of thought and self to be transparent to awareness and insight. When the observer/self ends, there’s simply the movement of thought and emotion. Watching everything that arises like a hawk, without judgment or choice, thought yields and the mind falls silent. Then and only then is “everything one,” as Schelling prematurely said. So what is it that sees, if not the self? The body and brain are there, but the duality of ‘I am afraid’ ceases. There aren’t two things (me and fear) just one fact - fear — which one undividedly watches and remains with. It’s a work in progress for everyone, except the few people in human history that have been fully enlightened.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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