Pre-ethical environmentalism

We are collecting short provocative and exploratory texts on ethics, written by UAL staff. If you would like to contribute to any of the educational ethics resources hosted by the Exchange please contact: t.p.stephens@arts.ac.uk


Intuition, science and ethics: reflections on a quote from Tim Ingold.

by John O’Reilly

Critics of traditional ways in which the notion of ethics is constructed and formed argue that it already has philosophical assumptions, cultural baggage and values baked into its vision. One of the main drivers of this critique has been the crisis around the environment.

Those critical of traditional ethics highlight its human exceptionalism, not just in terms of seeing the ‘environment’ as separate from the human, but also the notion of ‘environment’ that underpins it.

A different way of thinking about ‘environment’ is not as the space of nature, but as a space in which the human has skills and perception developed through their embodied relation with other humans and non-humans.

Anthropologist Tim Ingold is an inspiration for many art and design school students and researchers, from spatial practices to visual communications, partly because he sees creation and making as forms of ethical knowledge production. Ingold has many influences and inspirations from pedology (the study of soil) to practices of musical notation to the work of Paul Klee. Sitting behind his thinking in this passage is the work of the 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger is known for his influence on 20th century existentialism and later ‘post-structuralist’ philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose work challenged the inherited systems of Western ethno-centric thinking. Heidegger’s work (who was controversial because of his links to the Nazi party and also had a relationship with the young Hannah Arendt) has some shared connections within another thinker popular in user experience design – J.J. Gibson (see Ecological Psychology).

Like Gibson, Heidegger sees the human as already thrown into the world, not separate from it. The human and non-human, the artificial and the natural (important for considerations of design) are irrevocably entangled, each producing and reproducing each other in a process of mutual creation. This involves a ‘poetics of dwelling’ and is the relation from which an ethical emerges.

The following extract is from Ingold’s 2011 work, The Perception of The Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill:

In the tradition of Western thought and science, intuition has had a pretty bad press: compared with the products of the rational intellect, it has been widely regarded as knowledge of an inferior kind.

Yet it is knowledge we all have; indeed we use it all the time as we go about our everyday tasks. What is more, it constitutes a necessary foundation for any system of science or ethics…

Where the logic of ethical reasoning, setting out from first principles, leads to results that are counter-intuitive, we do not reject our intuitions but rather change the principles, so that they will generate results which conform more closely to what we feel is right…

Intuitive understanding, in short, is not contrary to science or ethics, nor does it appeal to instinct rather than reason, or to supposedly ‘hardwired’ imperatives of human nature. On the contrary, it rests in perceptual skills that emerge, for each and every being, through a process of development in a historically specific environment.

These skills, I maintain, provide a necessary grounding for any system of science or ethics that would treat the environment as an object of its concern. The sentient ecology is thus both pre-objective and pre-ethical.

I have no wish to devalue the projects of either natural science or environmental ethics, indeed both are probably more needed now than ever before. My plea is simply that we should not lose sight of their pre-objective, pre-ethical foundations. My overriding aim has been to bring these foundations to light. And what these excavations into the formation of knowledge have revealed is not an alternative science, ‘indigenous’ rather than Western, but something more akin to a poetics of dwelling.

It is within the framework of such a poetics, I contend, that Cree tales of animals offering themselves to humans, Aboriginal stories of ancestors emerging from waterholes, Janáček’s attempts to notate the sounds of nature and my father’s efforts to introduce me to the plants and fungi of the countryside, can best be understood.” (Ingold, 2011, p. 26)

(Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986: 29).

Ingold, T., (2011) The Perception of The Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Skip to toolbar