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Philistinism and the Preservation of Nature

  • Simon P. James (a1)


It is clear that natural entities can be preserved – they can be preserved because they can be harmed or destroyed, or in various other ways adversely affected. I argue that in light of the rise of scientism and other forms of philistinism, the political, religious, mythic, personal and historical meanings that people find in those entities can also be preserved. Against those who impugn disciplines such as fine arts, philosophy and sociology, I contend that this sort of preservation requires the efforts of those whose work exemplifies the core values of the arts, the humanities and the qualitative social sciences.


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1 See, e.g., the essays by Turner, Frederick and Jordan, William R. in Baldwin, A. D. Jr., de Luce, J., and Pletsch, C. (eds), Beyond Preservation: Restoring and Inventing Landscapes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

2 The History of the Countryside: the classic history of Britain's landscape, flora and fauna (London: Phoenix Press, 1986).

3 In what follows, I focus on the natural history of Britain. I do this simply because I am familiar with this topic, and not because I believe that my argument only applies to the wildlife, natural habitats, etc. of a small group of islands in the North Atlantic. On the contrary, my case applies to wildlife, etc. generally, regardless of its geographical location.

4 Op. cit. note 2, 26.

5 Op. cit. note 2, 247.

6 Op. cit. note 2, 29; cf. Rackham, O., Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape: The Complete History of Britain's Trees, Woods & Hedgerows (Revised edition) (London: Phoenix Press, 1990), 204.

7 Op. cit. note 2, 54.

8 Defending that contentious assumption is beyond the scope of this paper. For an introduction to the relevant issues, see Cooper, David E., Meaning (Chesham: Acumen, 2003), Chapter 5.

9 E.g., Mabey, R., Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996); Cocker, M. and Mabey, R., Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005). See also: Mabey, R., Nature Cure (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005); Mabey, Beechcombings: The narratives of trees (London: Vintage, 2007); Mabey, Weeds: A cultural history (London: Profile Books, 2010a); Mabey, A Brush with Nature (London: Random House, 2010b); Marren, P. and Mabey, R., Bugs Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010); Buczacki, S., Fauna Britannica (London: Hamlyn, 2005).

10 Steven Vogel is one writer who would dispute the claim that the Britannica works are about nature. See his defence of ‘postnaturalism’ in Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature’, Environmental Ethics 24 (spring 2002), 2339.

11 True, ‘Nature is what naturalists study’ would not be a satisfactory definition. But it is not my intention, here, to define nature. My aim is simply to convey a general sense of what I am referring to when I use the term ‘nature’. Furthermore, although in what follows I refer to natural ‘entities’, I do not mean to suggest that naturalists are exclusively concerned with things. On the contrary, they are typically concerned with a variety of ontological categories – not just things, but processes, for instance, and events. For a more detailed account of these issues, see Buege, Douglas J., ‘An Ecologically-informed Ontology for Environmental Ethics’, Biology and Philosophy 12 (1997), 120.

12 The Presidential Address: Nature, Respect for Nature, and the Human Scale of Values’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 100 (2000), 132, at 10.

13 Mabey 1996, op. cit. note 9, 7.

14 Mabey 1996, op. cit. note 9, 203, 50–1, 326. Cf. Buczacki, op. cit. note 9, 196, on the old belief that ash trees repel snakes.

15 On these different relations – expressive, allusive and associative, respectively – see Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 113–22.

16 In philosophical logic and philosophy of language, the main focus is on the meanings of linguistic items such as sentences, rather than the meanings of non-linguistic items such as gestures, rituals or natural entities. In what follows, however, I adopt a conception of meaning which accords more closely with the way that term – and related English words, such as ‘significance’ - are used in ordinary discourse. That strategy would be criticised by some writers, including Dan Sperber, but it has been defended by several others, including Hill, Thomas E. and Cooper, David E. (see Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 89; Hill, The Concept of Meaning (London: Routledge, 1971), v; Cooper, op. cit. note 8, Chapter 1). Cooper, for his part, argues that to explain the meaning of any ‘thing’ is to show how it is ‘appropriate’ to ‘what is either larger than or outside itself’ (where ‘appropriateness’ is conceived as a kind of normative, rather than causal, relation), and this enables him to consider the meanings of a wide variety of ‘things’, including gestures, rituals and even what Dilthey called ‘Life’ itself. I merely mention Cooper's position in passing since there is insufficient space, here, to provide a detailed account, still less a defence, of it. In any case, the argument set out in the rest of the paper does not presuppose the truth of Cooper's account, so rejecting it need not compel one to reject the argument.

17 See Mabey 1996, op. cit. note 9, 7–8.

18 See The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 163.

19 On the recent provenance of many ‘traditions’, see Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (eds) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

20 See, e.g., Buczacki (op. cit. note 9) on yellowhammers (180), swifts (311), swallows (321) and magpies (359–60).

21 Quoted in Nicolson, M. H., Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetic of the Infinite (New York: Cornell University Press, 1959), 210.

22 Quoted in ibid., 200. Macfarlane, R., Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (London: Granta, 2003), 27.

23 See Nicholson, op. cit. note 21, chapter 2.

24 Cf. Cocker and Mabey, op. cit. note 9, ix–x.

25 Mabey 1996, op. cit. note 9, 9.

26 Op. cit. note 2.

27 Tuan, Y-F., Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974), Schama, S., Landscape and Memory (London: Fontana Press, 1996), 14.

28 See, respectively, Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), and Season Songs (London: Faber and Faber, 1985). See also the discussion of ‘Swifts’ at Mabey 2005, op. cit. note 9, 19. On ‘gathering’, see Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in Hofstadter, A. (trans.) Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Harper & Row, 1971), 165–86.

29 Both poems are from Death of a Naturalist (London: Faber and Faber, 1991).

30 Mabey 2010b, op. cit. note 9, 155.

31 Excepting, perhaps, those of the T'ang dynasty Buddhist recluse, Han Shan, which were said to have been etched onto cliffs and trees.

32 Thus Robert Macfarlane writes that the frozen shoulders of Ben Hope in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland refused any imputation of meaning’ (The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2007), 157). Against such claims, it could be contended that, like the artworks of Duchamp and Schoenberg, some natural entities have a special significance or meaning precisely because they resist being incorporated into our usual schemes of significance.

33 On the embodiment of meaning in artworks, see Danto, Arthur C., ‘The end of art: A philosophical defence’, History and Theory 37: 4 (1998), 127–43. See also Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch's discussion of how national flags embody meanings in Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 72–3.

34 This is a form of what Mikael Stenmark calls ‘axiological scientism’. See his book Scientism: Science, Ethics and Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 11–3.

35 Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions in Life (London: Bantam Books, 2010), 13. For evidence of Dawkins's scientism, see the extract from his 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture quoted in op. cit. note 34, 19–20.

36 See Grice, H. P., ‘Meaning’, The Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 377–88. Not all commentators believe that this sort of translation is feasible. See, for example, Cooper's discussion of the statement ‘Those clouds mean rain’. This, he contends, is not simply a statement of some regularity or causal connections. Rather, it is in virtue of the appropriateness within a human practice of using clouds as signs of rain that talk of the clouds' meaning something has its point. See op. cit. note 8, 36–7.

37 Most, but not all. A small proportion of those who endorse axiological scientism will be familiar with work in the philosophy of language, and of these a small proportion will subscribe to causal theories of meaning.

38 The latter suggests a commitment to what Stenmark calls ‘epistemic scientism’ (op. cit. note 34, 4–5).

39 ‘Politics and the English Language’, in Orwell, Essays (London: Penguin, 1994), 348359, at 350.

40 Basic Writings, ed. Krell, D. F. (London: Routledge, 1993), 329.

41 Discourse on Thinking, trans. Anderson, J. M. and Freund, E. H. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 56 (emphasis removed).

42 See further, Furedi, F., Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism (London: Continuum, 2004).

43 Talk of ‘bulwarks’ might seem needlessly alarmist. At any rate, it suggests that it is a bad thing, indeed something that there are moral or other sorts of reason to avoid, when people lose their sense of nature's meaningfulness. Various arguments could be offered in support of this last claim. For example, it could be argued that the members of a philistine society will typically be unable to live truly worthwhile lives. I do not have space, here, to develop this argument. But for an indication as to how it might go, see Peter Goldie's intriguing remarks on the effects of Soviet philistinism in Towards a Virtue Theory of Art’, British Journal of Aesthetics 47: 4 (2007), 372–87, at 385.

44 See further, Nussbaum, M., Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

45 I would like to thank David E. Cooper, Andy Hamilton, Dawn M. Wilson and Matthew Ratcliffe for the very helpful comments they provided on drafts of this paper.

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Philistinism and the Preservation of Nature

  • Simon P. James (a1)


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