“Philosophers have thus far only … interpreted the world …”


This short paper was given at the annual conference of the Society for Human Ecology, on April 15th., 2016.

“Philosophers have thus far only … interpreted the world …”—How Human Ecology can make Philosophy Practical

In two papers published in Human Ecology Review,1 I have spoken of what philosophy can do for human ecology. In this paper, I will speak of what human ecology can do for philosophy, at least given a certain conception of philosophy which I am assuming to be correct. Of course, if I were to do nothing more than this, then my paper would be more relevant for a philosophy conference rather than a human ecology one. Yet as we shall see, in showing the importance of disciplines like human ecology for philosophy one simultaneously reveals, in a novel way, the importance of philosophy for human ecology. I will do this by way of interpreting Karl Marx’s conception of philosophy, to which, therefore, I am subscribing.

§ 1: Marx’s Conception of Philosophy and Its Dependence on Kant

In the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach Marx writes, “Philosophers have thus far only variously interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Marx is not, of course, demanding that philosophers should stop plying their useless trade and become activists. His point is meta- rather than anti-philosophical: philosophers, because they have thus far only interpreted the world, have not done philosophy properly. Philosophy, done properly, changes the world in interpreting it. It is a kind of interpretation which has as a criterion of its success in knowing that it change what it knows. More precisely, distinctively philosophical knowledge is acquired in a process of changing what it is knowledge of—changing it in some desired and presumably radical way. Clearly, on this conception of it, philosophy is quite unlike all other forms of inquiry. It is evidently quite unlike strictly theoretical forms of inquiry like mathematics and physics, which seek knowledge for its own sake. But it is also unlike those forms of inquiry we pursue for strictly practical reasons. All forms of applied science seek to determine how potentially useful or harmful natural processes work. The engineering disciplines then seek to implement the results of applied science in technological applications. But neither applied science nor engineering has as a criterion of epistemic success that it participate in transforming what it knows.

One might, of course, object that this is to reduce the concept of theoretical inquiry to absurdity; no form of theory can know its object only if it transforms its object. But this objection can, I think, be answered by understanding Marx as tacitly elaborating a central idea from Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the central forms of philosophical discourse—on the theoretical side, ontology and metaphysics, on the practical side, ethics and political philosophy—had thus far been nothing more than a succession of undecidable squabbles. He thought, however, that it was possible to put them on what he called the sure path of a science. That is, he thought he could show how to turn them into genuinely successful cognitive enterprises, capable of securing agreement amongst practitioners and thereby progressing in the way physics and mathematics clearly were. They could, he believed, become scientific in this sense if they understood themselves as articulating how things must be in order that we may be as rational agents, across all the different kinds of rational activity there are—across first-order natural and social scientific inquiry; moral deliberation, judgement and action; artistic creation and appreciation; and finally political deliberation, judgement and action.

But what does this mean? In order to make sense of this, we need to understand what Kant means by a rational activity. A rational activity is anything which involves reason-giving, i.e., the self-conscious wielding of concepts in the evaluation of claims. Thus, in the natural and social sciences, we evaluate whether theories or observations are true, in ethics, whether actions are right; in art, whether objects are beautiful, and in politics whether policies are wise. Kant re-conceives philosophy as the investigation of how entities must be if they are to be the targets of successful practices of all such forms of self-conscious, reason-giving evaluation. For example, he believes that we can definitively resolve, in intersubjectively decidable fashion, the contentious issue of what causality is, that is, what we really mean when we attribute causal relations, by asking what content the concept of causality must have if we are to have experience of entities as falling under it, specifically, the kind of experience which enables us to provide a natural scientific account of causal relations, in the shape of explanatory scientific theories.

Crucially, Kant believes that the conception of how to do philosophy exemplified by his account of causality can be generalised. That is, it can be applied systematically to all philosophically important notions—from the concepts of causality and substance through the concept of freedom to the concepts of society and nature. And when we thus generalise, we find that we are conducting an ontological investigation of how things in general essentially are—one, however, guided by the idea that what things essentially or ontologically are is whatever they need to be for us to be able to relate to them as self-conscious, reason-wielding agents. Now to give an account of how entities must be if we are to relate to them in our capacity as self-conscious, reason-wielding agents must simultaneously be to give an account of what it is for us to be such agents.2 For this reason, Kant says that all the specific questions driving philosophy—“What can I know?,” “What ought I to do?,” and “What may I hope for?”—may be related back to one general question: “Was ist der Mensch?,” i.e., “What is the human being?”

One might initially query this. Surely, one will say, it is either biology or anthropology which tells us what it is to be human. But this worry only arises because Kant is formulating his general question loosely. By a human being Kant does not mean something with a certain DNA, with certain quite contingent physical and psychological needs, desires and capacities. That is, he does not mean human being in any biological, anthropological or other empirical sense. Rather, by a human being he means something with the kind of capacity for self-conscious experience and reasoning which, as far as we know, only human beings have. The central task of philosophy is the explication by us of what it means to be us, simply in our capacity as self-conscious, reason-wielding beings.3

Ultimately, then, Kant is suggesting that we re-interpret the very concept of philosophy as having at its heart two interrelated tasks: firstly, an explication of how reality must be in order that self-conscious rational agents such as we are may be; and secondly, an explication of what it is to be a self-conscious, rational agent such as we are (since this second task is implicit in the first).4 And according to Kant completion of each of these tasks yields an important result: by completing the first we get the claim that the reality we confront in our experience conforms to some degree to a condition under which rational agents exist optimally as such beings, across all the kinds of activity of which such beings are capable.5 In other words, it and therefore we ourselves, as occurring in it, realise this condition at least to some (possibly quite minimal6) degree. And by completing the second we get the claim that something is a self-conscious, rational agent just in case it is also a moral agent, conscious of moral requirements and as a rule willing and able to adhere to them.7 These two claims together entail that the condition in which rational beings exist optimally as such beings, a condition which we and the reality we confront in our experience at least partially realise, is what Kant calls the perfect or highest good.8 This is, says Kant, a condition in which all human beings receive their due as rational agents. In other words, it is a condition in which all empirical reality, both social and natural,9 is so ordered that the legitimate needs and desires of all human beings are met and these humans are content to have only their legitimate needs and desires met.

§ 2: Towards a Kantian Understanding of the Unity of Theory and Practice

Only by attributing this Kantian conception of philosophy to Marx, as an assumption Marx implicitly makes, can one, I believe, make sense of the radical unity of theory and practice which Marx asserts in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. The key is Kant’s claim that when one does philosophy in the manner he recommends, one reaches the conclusion that human beings, the diverse institutions and practices they create and indeed the reality they encounter in experience are oriented towards the form of the perfect or highest good in which they always already partially participate. This ideal is obviously a very abstract notion: it specifies no concrete moral norm nor any concrete form of life. It is merely the utopian idea of a condition in which the just are happy and the happy just—in which, as it is written, “the righteous shall flourish as the green leaf.”10 As such, it specifies nothing concrete as constituting, or contributing towards realising, this condition. What counts as realising it is therefore something to be determined case-by-case, i.e., in the context.11 In particular, it must be determined by the participants in the context themselves, not the least because as rational beings they have a right to determine this for themselves.

Determining what counts in a specific situation as a step towards the perfect good is therefore not trivial. It will be particularly difficult in the case of unsustainable or inequitable human-environment interactions because the cause of unsustainability or injustice will often be the very pattern of desire driving the interaction. The best and ultimate example of this is consumption, particularly but not exclusively in the first world. In this case, no techno-regulatory fix will suffice; change in patterns of desire is required. Now precisely in this case, when re-configuration of desire is required, the beneficiaries of unsustainable or inequitable human-environment interactions will have to learn how to do without the things they have previously desired. Given very deep-seated desires—things one cannot imagine oneself doing without—, this reconfiguration will involve visceral learning of how to do things in ways which are alternatives in the sense that they provide alternative rewards to compensate for the renunciation required.12 For example, one makes it, on the one hand, much more difficult to drive a car. Yet on the other one provides a public transport alternative which approximates in convenience to the car. The new system requires, however, a degree of walking previously thought intolerable. At the same time, it is designed to provide alternative benefits, e.g., enhanced community and residential amenity, vibrant public spaces, and so on. If the new system is introduced in a careful, experimental way, so that people feel in control of things, then one can well imagine people learning how to live comfortably with the new arrangements. Through visceral experience of the alternative and its alternative rewards, they would literally re-programme their sensibilities—how they affectively respond to the world. Thereby they would re-configure their desires. As this example illustrates, the transition from the abstract ideal of the perfect good to its concrete implementation—to a concrete win-win situation between ethics and desire—is, in the most serious and important cases, a process of visceral experimentation in which those who must make the change trial it, so to speak try it on for themselves.

Note, however, that such participant-driven re-programming, hence participant-driven behavioural change, would be enhanced if conducted explicitly in the knowledge that it was a process of applying to the particular context the abstract idea of the perfect good in Kant’s sense. For to know this is to know that a concern to harmonise ethics and desire is inherent to self-conscious rational agents such as we humans are. It is to know that, as a rule, the rational agent is a moral agent, possessed of a concern for justice, both for others and of course also for itself. Consequently, one knows that, all else being equal, most people would prefer a solution to environmental problems in which all parties receive their due. Philosophy done in the manner of Kant thus gives those concerned to solve environmental problems the confidence that since most people will endure some discomfort for the sake of greater justice, there is a rational path from the present into a future in which desire and ethics are at least better reconciled.

In other words, it shows that, as a rule, if not in all cases—psychopaths are the exception—, rational agents would, with sufficient reflection and in particular experience, acknowledge harmony between desire and ethics as happiness in Aristotle’s sense, that is, as living well. Note that happiness in this sense does not entail absence of pain and suffering. Harmony between desire and ethics is contentment13 and it is possible to be content even as one experiences the frustration of significant desire. For example, I wish I had more money, for then I could do all sorts of things I currently cannot. Yet I am happy, or at least happy enough; my happiness suffices. Indeed, on the Aristotelian conception of happiness, it is possible to be happy even in a hospice. For this reason, the contemporary tendency to identify living well with well-being is wrong since well-being suggests absence of pain.

§ 3: Human Ecology as Mediating between Philosophy and Political Practice

Clearly, the re-configuration of desire, hence behaviour, through experimentation with alternatives could be expedited by ‘experts’: individuals familiar both with socio-ecological research methods and with previous cases, individuals able also to suggest novel technological, regulatory and administrative alternatives. Such intervention in a process through which participants in, particularly the beneficiaries of, a human-environment interaction radically transformed the interaction in order to make it more sustainable and equitable would surely be a task for human ecology. At the same time, insofar as it understood itself to be seeking to determine what would count in the particular circumstances as instantiating the perfect good, such intervention would also explicitly presuppose that ontology of the self-conscious self and rational agent in which the idea of the perfect good is grounded. Such a human ecology would therefore be a form of applied philosophy.14

Note, however, a crucial feature of the knowledge which human ecology, practised in this philosophical way, would help to generate: knowledge of what counts as instantiating the form of the good would not only be knowledge acquired by the participants themselves to a problematic human-environment interaction; it would also only result insofar as the process of acquiring it also produced what it is knowledge of. For consider this: a pattern of human behaviour only instantiates the perfect good, that is, only reconciles desire and ethics in the concrete situation, if those who participate in it rationally believe that it does. But participants in this pattern of behaviour will only rationally believe that it does if they subjectively experience it as making them happy in the sense of contented. And they will only subjectively experience it as making them happy in this sense if they actually engage in the pattern of behaviour, if they actually live it. My conclusion is, therefore, that human ecology done as philosophy and philosophy done as human ecology will only successfully interpret the world if in interpreting it, they together change it. Thereby philosophy becomes what Marx demanded it be in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. And it does so with the help of human ecology.15


  1. These publications are: ‘Two Kinds of Economy, Two Kinds of Self—Toward More Manageable, Hence More Sustainable and Just Supply Chains’, in Human Ecological Review, Vol. 21, No.2 (2015), pp.3-21; and ‘Human Ecology as Philosophy’, in Human Ecological Review, Vol. 20, No.2 (2014), pp.31-50.

  2. It is here, in the account of what is to be self-conscious, rational agents such as we are, that explication of the obviously philosophically important concepts of morality—of such notions as justice, virtue and indeed the perfect or highest good—finds its place.

  3. Note, incidentally, that this is Kant’s debt to Descartes.

  4. The claim that this is the defining point and purpose of philosophical inquiry, and not just something merely implicit in the investigation of how entities must be in order that we may relate in self-conscious, reason-wielding fashion to them, has not been sufficiently justified. But I do not have the time to do this here.

  5. The restriction here to the reality we confront in our experience is essential; if the claim applied to all possible empirical reality, then it would be obviously false: an empirical reality is certainly conceivable in which rational agents such as humans are could not survive. If, for example, all empirical reality across the board had the properties of a black hole, then presumably it would be nomologically impossible for any rational being sufficiently similar to a human being to exist in this reality. The claim here is weak enough to preserve this possibility. At the same time, it is still stronger than the clearly trivial claim that some empirical reality is possible in which rational agents would exist optimally as the (specific kind of) rational agent they are.

  6. Kant in fact thinks that the degree to which this is so, at least as far as morality is concerned, is very minimal. He has a rather negative view of the extent to which actual human beings are willing to act justly and the reality they act in actually is just.

  7. Note that this does not entail that one always succeeds in adhering to them. One could suffer from weakness of will and give in to temptation. Sometimes, of course, rational agents can lack concern to adhere to moral requirements. But such cases of psychopathy are derivative in the sense that the existence of psychopathic selves requires the existence of non-psychopathic ones (but not, of course, conversely).

  8. “So fern nun Tugend und Glückseligkeit zusammen den Besitz des höchsten Guts in einer Person, hiebei aber auch Glückseligkeit, ganz genau in Proportion der Sittlichkeit (als Wert der Person und deren Würdigkeit glücklich zu sein) ausgeteilt, das höchste Gut einer möglichen Welt ausmachen: so bedeutet dieses das Ganze, das vollendete Gute, worin doch Tugend immer, als Bedingung, das oberste Gut ist, weil es weiter keine Bedingung über sich hat, Glückseligkeit immer etwas, was dem, der sie besitzt, zwar angenehm, aber nicht für sich allein schlechterdings und in aller Rücksicht gut ist, sondern jederzeit das moralische gesetzmäßige Verhalten als Bedingung voraussetzt.”—Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Zweites Hauptstück.

  9. This shows that by nature Marx does not mean what Descartes and contemporary naturalism mean, namely, the universe of discourse of natural science. But neither does Marx understand by nature simply a domain of resources which human beings can utilise in order to realise their various needs and desires—what economists call their preferences. For nature is implicitly understood as that wherein rational agents might optimally occur as rational agents. Given, however, that rational agents are moral agents in the Kantian sense, it follows that nature is at least potentially a domain in which the moral principle that rational agents are never to be treated simply as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves is a natural law, i.e., a principle adhered to in the sense that most rational agents most of the time conform to it. This shows that Marx’s conception of nature is similar to Locke’s notion of the state of nature. Of course, unlike Locke, Marx does not conceive of the state of nature as an original historical condition from out of which institutions, in particular and primarily the institution of property, arose. As a condition in which the categorical imperative is a natural law, it lies in the future rather than the past. But as a condition which is defined by, hence understood from the outset as, having this future as a possibility, it is what nature essentially and therefore currently is (to some degree). The concept of nature is thus not simply the concept of a pool of resources and so room is left for the idea that to treat it as just a pool of resources may contradict the defining character of nature as that wherein rational agents optimally occur as rational agents.

  10. Proverbs 11:28.

  11. Through the exercise of what Aristotle calls phrónesis.

  12. So the experimentation with alternatives of which I speak here is not the idea of withdrawing from society in order to create alternatives, as in the commune movement of sixties and seventies counterculture. Rather, it is the idea of experimenting with alternatives ways of conducting everyday activities constitutive of the existing social process and order.

  13. One could also speak here of composure. Eckhart speaks of Abgeschiedenheit and Gelassenheit.

  14. At this point I would, if I had the time, go on to argue that when human ecology has this understanding of itself (as applied philosophy in the sense indicated), it would find itself forced to assume an inherently political character in order to deal adequately with problems of unsustainability. By this coming to assume an inherently political character I mean the way in which human ecology, in its efforts to understand problematic human-environment interactions so as to facilitate transformation of them, would be forced to confront power relations. It is surely part of human ecology to identify and criticise strategies which, at first blush, seem sustainable, hence good ideas, but are not really, for example, much urban planning, gentrification, etc. Human ecology is, after all, defined by its challenge to that scientistic conception which construes sustainability as a politically neutral technological issue of implementing things like eco-villages, people-friendly public spaces, greening buildings, etc. So inevitably, in its efforts to demonstrate that sustainability is not a simply scientific and technological problem but a social and political one as well, human ecology will be brought face-to-face with power relations.

  15. Note that one could run a similar argument for issues of public health or social harmony, e.g., combating obesity or addiction or indeed overcoming forms of social violence, such as teenage gang culture or honour killing. In these cases, too, a similar engagement of the practitioner with the participants is a requirement, an engagement which is only epistemically successful if it is practically successful. Lack of time prevents me from developing the essentially political character of this kind of engagement, whether with regard to the environment, public health or social harmony. For indeed it is clear that in the case of any such engagement those involved in it may encounter opposition from groups with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.