By Otto Paans
The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”
Now, ten years later, after more than 300,000 views of the site, this series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.
In this eleventh installment, Otto Paans reflects on the subjective experience of untrammeled nature .
#1 Changing Social Institutions From Without Or Within
#4 Respect For Choices vs. Respect For Persons
#5 Thirty-Six Philosophical Precepts of Martial Arts Practice
#6 Enlightenment, Education, and Inspiration
#7 Rigged and Lucky: The Myth of Meritocracy in Professional Academic Philosophy
#9. How Much Does The Chatbot Brouhaha Affect Anarcho-Philosophical Teaching and Learning?
#10 Neoliberalism, Higher Education, and Faculty as Mental Health “First Responders”
A Philosopher’s Diary, #11 — There’s Nothing…And Everything.
There’s nothing — nothing at all. I mean, there is something: the trees, the clouds, the rocks, the warmth of the sun on my skin, the gravel under my hiking boots. The sounds are also there — crickets chirping in the grass, the birds singing, an airplane passing high overhead, punctuating the vastness of the sky. The gravel crunches underfoot. Shadows play on the forest floor.
But apart from this, nothing special has been arranged for me here. The forest path that I follow has been made only for practical purposes. Tire tracks indicate that it was made for heavy vehicles. Some tree trunks have been stacked next to the road. It’s clear that someone will pick them up later — or not. I could sit on them if I wanted to, but again, I am just visiting, passing through, and nothing in my perusal of the tree trunks implies otherwise. Some grass leaves spring up here and there in-between the gravel, especially those parts that are largely untrodden. Nature springs up where we are absent. It slowly takes over, grows, procreates, and encroaches silently.
Nothing is made for me here. I just pass through. A silence settles, and in this silence, in the liberating absence of the practical, Life springs up, like so many plants springing up from the forest floor. Is this not paradise? Or rather: the paradisiacal situation? Human beings find themselves in a world which is. It exists — simply, inevitably, intensely, and indifferently. The play of the clouds is there, and one can choose to look at it. The wind rustles the grass; and one can choose to listen.
Forget all those edifying works that praise the glory of nature, and that rhapsodize about the moral lessons to be found there. Those are at home with the sermonizers, the moralists, the prophets of the easily-satisfied. They all deal in a discourse of self-improvement or senseless remorse and guilt. They are written by the flagellants that every age suffers. Forget also those who rejoice in the disappearance of civilization, and those who praise that Eden which is just of reach: Arcadia, unspoiled, untarnished by the evil of humanity. It is a folly as well as, in another sense, a reality. We just arrived recently, and soon we will have to go. In the bigger scheme of things, we are flecks on a geological timescale. Mountains erode, sediments settle in the riverbed, life evolves, and species die out.
But to moralize about nature or to yearn for blissful oblivion are both just ways to ignore all that is. Only in the absence of things that are made for me, a springing up, a sprouting, a welling up of spontaneity takes place. Our society is made for us, and by us, and so is the physical environment that we created for ourselves. But go to the fringe, and nothing is made for you. Finally, you have to decide what to do. Whether to walk, to listen, to sit, or to enjoy.
So, this is what “instrumental rationality” did: something that was merely possible has been made into a goal. Something which was contingent has been made necessary. Something which could be done has turned into something that must be done, and endlessly so.
But here — one experiences a thoroughly different arrangement of things. We are merely guests, and comfortably, there are only some signs of civilization. But it is far off and only minimal. In that fringe between nature and culture, we walk. In the fringe, we made our home, and we call it landscape.
Pure nature is too much for us. It is fearful, overwhelmingly mute, and gives rise to myths told around a campfire. In its mute presence, it haunts and disturbs that part of our minds that is culturally shaped. Once, in Norway, I walked alone through the autumn forest, and the endless spruces almost became hostile, their lengthening shadows threatening forebodes of the dark that set in. Their silent presence and their multitude spoke of a world in which I had no role to fulfill.
We can tolerate nature only when we know that we can return to civilization, or at least to human company sooner or later. But in that fringe, where instrumental reason has ventured only passingly, where purpose is reduced to a tire track, where fallen logs imply the activity of the absent forester — there, we find a balance between nature and culture that comforts us. The discipline of Naturphilosophie? Many 19th-century philosophers were happy to decribe and dissect nature and ascribe forces to it, but at the same time, they kept it at bay. Considered as a structural totality, or explored as an intellectual enterprise, it was fine; as a lived reality it was too much.
Many of the travel stories of the 19th century are dramatically set in this fringe. The Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, the voyages into sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America: they all show us the great drama that plays out between civilization and nature, the known and the unknown, the mastery of Nature and being delivered over to it. Even the Transcendentalists — nature-minded as they were — derive their originality from this tension. Nature is all well and good, but Thoreau nevertheless built a log cabin at Walden Pond for shelter and warmth.
The absence of a once-present civilization grants us an imaginary view into a world that could become a reality once humanity is gone, but it still tells us about the comforting presence that other human beings represent for us. And so, in the place where there is nothing, there’s also everything — dignity and spontaneity, the subtle traces of civilization and nature’s ceaseless will-to-live. We are passersby, while still entertaining the hope of reaching home by this evening.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 758
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 20 March 2023
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