Philosophy, a Living Practice – Grace, Place, and the Natural World – Kathleen Dean Moore – The Ecology of Love
Words will never describe my love for Kathleen Dean Moore.
Jensen: Immersion doesn’t occur overnight. It takes a long time to get to know a place, and for it to get to know you.
Moore: That’s especially true given the separations that characterize our contemporary Western lives. We don’t lead lives of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau claimed. We lead lives of relentless separation – comings and goings, airport embraces, loneliness, locked doors, notes left by the phone. And the deepest of all those divides is the one that separates us from the places we inhabit. Everywhere I go, I encounter people who have come from someplace else and left behind their knowledge of that land. Universities, which should study connections, specialize in distinctions instead. Biologists in their laboratories forget that they are natural philosophers. Philosophers themselves pluck ideas out of contexts, like worms out of holes, and hold them dangling and drying in the bright light. We lock ourselves in our houses and seal the windows and watch nature shows on tv. We don’t go out at night unless we have mace, or in the rain without a Gore-Tex jacket. No wonder we forget that we are part of the natural world, members of a natural community. If we are reminded at all, it’s only by a sense of dislocation and a sadness we can’t easily explain.
…if philosophy is concerned with big, abstract ideas, then it must be di-vorced from the details of our lives. I believe that is a huge mistake. If philosophy is about big ideas, then it must be about how we live our lives. If I find out what a human being is, to borrow Socrates’ example, then I will know what makes one human life worth living.
…Most philosophers work in isolation on little intellectual islands, and when people live in isolation for a few generations, they start to speciate, develop their own languages, and twitter in words that only they can understand.
People are desperate for the kind of insights philosophers can provide. When I speak to fisheries biologists, or wetland managers, or conservation groups, they are all looking for someone to articulate the worldviews and values that can help us make sound decisions. Scientists can tell us how to save wild salmon, for example, but it’s up to philosophers and others to tell us why we should. The values, the moral imperatives, the framing ideas – all these are missing from the public debate, in part because philosophers are too busy publishing arcane tracts that no one but a tenure committee will ever read.
Jensen: Why is it so hard for philosophers to write about real-life issues?
Moore: I think part of the problem has to do with striving for a specific kind of clarity and certainty. It took me probably twenty years to realize how steep a price philosophers have paid for this peculiar clarity. The first thing to go was the philosopher as a person. By writing always about ideas and never about themselves, philosophers became disembodied authorities with no past, no future, no reason for wondering, or even for living.
What happened then is that the range of possible subjects narrowed: the things one can write most clearly about are also the simplest, and nothing in real life is simple. So the philosophers I met in graduate school wrote about such pure, slick-surfaced ideas as truth and consistency, but not about home, not about landscape, not about parents, not about fish.
Jensen: I would like a philosophy that teaches me how to live: How can I be a better person? How can I live my life more fruitfully, more happily, more relationally?
Moore: These are traditionally the most significant philosophical questions, but they’ve been washed off the surface of philosophy by the twentieth century.
It’s a failure of courage, I think. Real-life issues are messy and ambiguous and contradictory and tough. But their complexity should be a reason to engage them, not a reason to turn away. The word clarity has two meanings: one ancient, the other modern. In Latin, clarus meant “clear sounding, ringing out,” so in the ancient world, clear came to mean “lustrous, splendid, radiant.” The moon has this kind of clarity when it’s full. But today that usage is obsolete. Now clear has a negatively phrased definition: “without the dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, without the confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.” For probably twenty years, I thought that this modern kind of clarity was all there was; that what I should be looking for as a philosopher was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth; that anything I couldn’t understand precisely wasn’t worth thinking about. Now I’m beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this.
…to lead a moral life we have to acknowledge the depth and complexity of our ties to our natural communities – our own experience of caring for those communities, and the value we place on caring. And we must commit ourselves to acts that grow out of love. Aldo Leopold said, “Sing our love for the land and our obligation to it.” It’s amazing how quickly obligation follows on the heels of love.
What is called for are not just acts of enlightened self-interest, but acts that grow from our connections and acknowledge the worth of the land we care for so deeply. The right act isn’t the one that makes us happiest as individuals. The right act is the one that strengthens and reknits the web of relationships, and so tends, as Leopold said, “to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty” of the community.
Figuring out what’s right in any given instance isn’t easy. You have to learn about your natural communities – how things fit together, what makes communities flourish, what weakens their bonds. You have to study what one might call “the ecology of love.”
Jensen: What is the relationship between love and the natural world?
Moore: I’m always surprised when a nature writer describes going off alone to commune with nature. That way of relating to nature is all about isolation, and I don’t have much patience with it. To me, that’s not what being in nature is about at all.
In my life, the natural world has always been a way of connecting with people – my children, my husband, my friends. The richness of my experience in the natural world translates immediately into richer relationships with people.
I think one of the most romantic and loving things you can say to another person is “Look.” There is a kind of love in which two people look at each other, but I don’t think it’s as interesting as the love between two people standing side by side and looking at something else that moves them both.
Let’s think about this in terms of what we were saying about memory and identity: If we are our memories, then to the extent that two people share memories, they become one person. The whole notion of the joining of souls that’s supposed to happen in marriage may come down to those times when we say, “Look,” to our partner, so the two of us can capture a memory to hold in common.