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Ecological Pragmatism: Marginalia for a Marginalized Program

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Zachary Piso
Allegheny College
United States

Bradley Brewster
University of Wisconsin - Madison
United States

Tess Varner
University of Georgia
United States

Panel Abstract: Despite a growing emphasis on interdisciplinarity, environmental philosophy remains a marginalized discourse in even the more pluralist philosophical communities. Understandably, scholars of the subject are anxious to address more subtle, nuanced perspectives on central issues despite a widespread unfamiliarity throughout the academy. Presentations frequently fail to resonate when conference papers overlook the need to define key themes and issues, but the inclusion of this background material forces philosophers to remain constrained to increasingly antiquated debates. This conference panel seeks to reintroduce interested individuals within the pragmatist community to the intersections between environmental studies and the classical pragmatic tradition, and to situate this discussion within a broader conversation about philosophy and ecology.

Papers will draw primarily on classical pragmatist thinkers, with special emphasis on Dewey and Mead, in hopes of rooting an environmental pragmatist program not only in seminal works of American philosophy, but also in a body of common language that will facilitate dialogue between the philosophical and scientific community. In light of the emphasis of naturalism in American philosophy, and especially in the work of classical pragmatism, collaborative projects in environmental studies are distinctly fostered by a commitment to pragmatist themes. It is nevertheless important to stress that not all consistencies between ecological and pragmatist thinking can be reduced to naturalistic concerns, especially when naturalism is conceived as the reductionistic turn of which it is often accused. However, when naturalism is understood more broadly to include emergent phenomena within the workings of nature, then this more robust perspective helps to unite the ontological, epistemological, and ethical frameworks of classical pragmatist thought. Because Dewey and others have explored the continuity between these philosophical concerns, pragmatism comes well prepared to offer an environmental philosophy that transcends the nature-culture dichotomy and promisingly recognizes the place of human communities within diverse biotic communities. The full extent of this intersection will be explored in the abstracts to follow, which represent interdisciplinary perspectives from environmental science, sociology, and feminist philosophy. These different perspectives are intended to offer different angles by which to continue the exploration of the program of ecological pragmatism; the first paper will define the scope of the program and situate the program within the larger body of philosophical thought, the second will critique the program from a feminist perspective and call for important considerations moving forward, and the third will explore George Herbert Mead as an underappreciated pragmatist thinker that might offer a better central figure for ecological pragmatism.

Whereas non-pragmatist perspectives on the environment might struggle to contribute to the theme of this meeting, environmental pragmatism dissolves the anthropocentric-ecocentric debate in an effort to situate our constructed landscapes not only as part of nature, but themselves a unique ecology between human and non-human occupants. In doing so, the program offers perspectives to more robust pragmatist traditions that have uniquely emphasized the social sphere and the participatory nature of communities and human self-construction. At the same time, environmental pragmatism is not merely a pragmatic perspective on the environment, but instead strives to offer a philosophy rich in the themes and metaphors born through the study of dynamic ecological systems. Only after offering an original but accessible overview of environmental philosophy, this discussion panel will explore the advantage of pragmatism toward such an interdisciplinary program. Collaborative projects armed with a familiarity with the idiomatic themes of each discipline can proceed largely unencumbered by the trouble of translating philosophy and science. This practice risks hierarchizing contributions from either discipline and undermining the joint effort.


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