Positivism, Ecology, and Rootless Cosmopolitanism

Stephen H. Kellert

This is a hard time to be in favor of universals. If you argue for modern western science, context-free knowledge that is valid everywhere and for everyone, and universal norms and rights, you risk being labelled a liberal or even a Logical Positivist. Radical strains of science and technology studies have shown us that universalizing theories can slip into totalitarian imperatives, or falsely generalize by excluding oppressed groups, or abstract away from the very practices that make meaningful experience possible. Bioregionalism and deep ecology champion the importance of local context in matters both political and epistemological. But what if the Logical Positivists weren't that bad? What if they were onto something—something worth keeping hold of? And what are the dangers of the contextual and the local?

The Logical Positivists have received a very bad reputation among some environmentalists and other progressives as defenders of the decontextualized scientific knowledge that sanctions and makes possible the domination and degradation of nature. My cautious expression of sympathy with Logical Positivism begins, curiously enough, by placing it within its historical and political and cultural context. Some recent work by philosopher of science Ron Giere and others helps to show that the movements known as Logical Positivism in Vienna and the associated school of Logical Empiricism centered in Berlin had a genuinely progressive political content.

What no one told me when I studied the Philosophy of Science was that the Logical Positivists and their associates were, as Giere says, "overwhelmingly internationalist in outlook; liberal, socialist, or even communist in political orientation; and many were Jews." Put these facts in the context of central Europe in the early 1930's, and we get a very different picture of this movement. Their manifestoes displayed the rhetoric of what we might call progressive or even radical secular humanism. This is all a far cry from the Logical Positivism that established a Philosophical Hegemony in the English-speaking world of the 50's.

One aspect of this movement in the 30's has a special relevance to the issue of context: the distinction between the "context of discovery" and the "context of justification." As Reichenbach framed this distinction, ". . . what we maintain is nothing but a relation of a theory to facts, independent of the man who found the theory." For Reichenbach, it was crucially important to resist attempts to situate modern science in its cultural context. Recall that the National Socialists sought to promulgate an authentically German Physics in contrast with the supposedly "Jewish Physics" of Einstein. As Giere writes, "separating questions of the origins of ideas from questions of their validity was, for Reichenbach at that time, a matter as deeply personal as it was philosophical. And this sentiment was surely shared by everyone in the movement." This distinction gained a new importance and a different emphasis in postwar America, where it reinforced the ideology of value-free science supposedly kept pure from the taint of politics, the military, the commercial.

But the decontextualizing of knowledge-claims had an urgent value for the Logical Positivists—a value I would endorse. Ever since the Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man forced the French to reluctantly emancipate those they hated, universalizing notions have been very important and very good for a particular despised and oppressed racial/ethnic minority in Europe—the Jews. Similarly, the "Mind had no Sex" universalism of Cartesian reason had some liberatory content for women in 17th century France. Of course, modern science also concocted new scientific theories to prove women's intellectual deficiency and justify sexual domination, as well as new biological conceptions of race that provided new justifications for anti-Semitism.

So, I am not simply arguing in favor of Enlightenment universalism or the Vienna Circle. But I want to insist that as local, contextual strategies, universalization and decontextualization can be crucial and must be kept available. And I want to articulate some of the dangers of the opposing view of modern science which challenges its context-independence or "exportability." The French historian of science Michel Serres provides a useful formulation of this issue when he writes that "science is conditioned by postulates or by decisions that are generally social, cultural, or historical in nature, which form it and orient it; nevertheless, science is universal, and independent of the type of pre-established contract" conceived between humans and nature. And here I depart from the published translation to render the universality of science in a convenient couplet: "Gravitational attraction is proportional to mass/ No matter what's the latitude or who's the ruling class."

Serres claims that different contexts of discovery could lead to different configurations of equally-universal knowledge. But challenges to the universal validity of modern Western science can sometimes become problematic defenses of the local. Some activist scholars from outside the European world have asserted that claims for modern sciences' universality and objectivity are "a politics of disvaluing local concerns and knowledge and legitimating 'outside experts.'" Such an assertion comes perilously close to making a universal declaration itself—that all claims of universal validity are always and everywhere politically pernicious. Similarly, the Third World Network declares that, "only when science and technology evolve from the ethos and cultural milieu of Third World societies will it become meaningful for our needs and requirements, and express our true creativity and genius. Third world science and technology can only evolve through a reliance on indigenous categories, idioms, and traditions in all spheres of thought." Such a manifesto trades on a troubling notion of local knowledge as thoroughly context-bound, authentically native, and uncontaminated by contact with other scientific traditions. In response to these admittedly polemical assertions, I contend that knowledges are situated but not situationist, context-dependent but not context-bound.

The slogan "Everything is local" is self-contradictory if it is made into an epistemological tenet. As literary critic Katherine Hayles points out, "Local Knowledge has become such an article of faith in the human sciences that it is paradoxically on the verge of becoming a universal in its own right." Nonetheless we should recognize that as a slogan, saying that everything is local is a useful heuristic guide, impelling us to pay attention to historical and political context.

I propose a complementary slogan: "Universality is sometimes appropriate." Now, if construed literally, this recalls the buttoned-up character in a Rob Reiner movie who, when accused of being joyless and regimented, responded, "Spontaneity is fine, in its proper time and place." The claim that universality is appropriate in specific contexts, taken as a claim about the applicability of methods, norms, and knowledge, fatally undermines itself. But as a heuristic guide, it impels us to pay attention to the fact that for particular groups in particular situations, universalization and context-free standards can be valuable and important. Nevertheless, it is difficult to make a self-consciously situated argument for a universal claim without being merely paradoxical or strategically disingenuous. The possibility of a coherent theory of situated, constructed universals remains to be demonstrated.

A clue may be found in a parallel argument by feminist theorist Diana Fuss about essentialism. To paraphrase Fuss: universalism is neither always progressive nor always reactionary. Instead of asking "does this person or movement make context-free claims?," we should ask, "if they make context-free claims, what are the motivation, context, and effects of this deployment of universalism?" The deployment of universalism may have a strategic value as an intervention in a particular context. One example of the strategic value of appeals to the universal may be the current struggle over international standards for human rights.

Returning to questions of knowledge, I contend that in their resistance to globalized Western science and technology, some formulations of deep ecology and bioregionalism invoke troubling conceptions of the local and —ultimately—the native. Carolyn Merchant identifies the view that "knowledge is context-dependent" as lying at the heart of the "ecocentric" environmental ethics common to deep ecology, the land ethic, and the movements for ecological restoration and sustainable agriculture. And this context-dependence applies beyond knowledge, for as Andrew Brennan puts it, "what ecology shows is not simply that the context makes a difference to the kind of action we engage in. It shows, rather, that what kinds of things we are, what sort of thing an individual person is . . . are themselves very much context-dependent." This "localism" reaches an extreme in some formulations of communitarianism which claim that selves are wholly constituted by their context—their participation in relationships and membership in communities—and hence become what feminist philosopher Margaret McLaren calls "radically situated" selves.

My confrontation with local context happened on the prairie. When I visited Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota a few years ago, I was awestruck by how beautiful, complicated, and stunningly rich this small patch of never-plowed prairie was. There was a rangers program at the park about restoring prairie in you backyard. Merchant describes an active movement for ecosystem restoration as "the process of restoring human-disturbed ecosystems to earlier pristine forms" by "active reconstruction of whole communities." This idea intrigued me—that you could bring back the native species on your own plot of earth and recreate this magnificent community of plants.

I listened very carefully. The first step posed no problems—pick a sunny spot, because the prairie thrives on intense summer sunshine. The second step was to exterminate all the non-native plants in the chosen area. The actual language used was "kill the exotics." And here I panicked. Because I am an "exotic." I am not native to Minnesota and I never will be. I am not indigenous to anywhere. The autochthonous, original connection of blood and soil that Sartre diagnoses at the heart of nativist racism is not available to me. I am an alien, often considered "invasive," descendent of a handful of eastern European Jewish peasants. What Hitler did to the Jews and to the people of Romany, and what Stalin did to the people he labelled "Rootless Cosmopolitans" was: kill the exotics. So at this point in the ranger's talk I decided that I would never restore the prairie on land that I owned. I made a decision to work with all the plants that are there—whether they arrived in steerage 100 years ago or crossed over a land bridge 15,000 years ago. I am opposed to the Pat Buchananism of the Vegetable Kingdom. A complicated mixture of native and exotic presents itself to us and we should appreciate it and foster it. Aldo Leopold wrote that "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, beauty, and stability of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." But as Donna Haraway and others have pointed out, natural systems are not always whole and isolated, may never have been pristine and uncontaminated, and are seldom static or stable. The model presented for prairie restoration is a terrible model for responding to human diversity.

The problem of diversity—for example, ethnic and religious diversity in Europe (in the form of the so-called "Jewish Problem")—was never solved by Enlightenment liberalism. And a certain anti-Modernist strand of Zionism, which focused on connection with a particular plot of earth and sought to restore the Homeland of the Jewish people has also failed to solve this problem, leading instead to the tragic results of competing claims for connection to the land. American Jews have a highly problematic relationship to the idea of "home." As one Jewish-American philosopher puts it, "home is where, if you can't flee from it fast enough, they will kill you or take you away. Home is where pogroms happen; like most American Jews, I have only the vaguest idea of where my grandparents were born, and there are surely no relatives still to be found there. Jewish `cosmopolitanism' needs, of course, to be seen in this light: our survival as a people has depended on our individual and communal ability to survive in diaspora, finding ways of making a living and making a life in a strange land, on the margins."

But if this is a condition of homelessness, it is also a condition with some privilege in this society, where light skin and abstract reason count for so much. And any defense of cosmopolitanism must take account of the material means necessary to accumulate enough cultural capital to be considered a "citizen of the world." Nonetheless, it is not too much to say that many people have the resources for some kinds of cosmopolitanism—an exposure to different perspectives and different ways of life—in a world where monolithic and "pure" cultures are scarce and becoming scarcer. Perhaps this helps to reveal some of the motivation for my (limited) sympathy with the Logical Positivists: my appreciation of the universal and the context-free is firmly rooted in my particular concrete lived experience.

My point about prairie restoration leads to one final point. In thinking about ecology and environmental philosophy, a fair amount of attention is paid to ethical issues about our relations with animals. I am also interested in how we relate to the world of plants. Agriculture and gardening and lawn care have a tremendous effect on our natural environment, and we need to think about them carefully. One important issue that arises from our interactions with plants is this: agriculture and horticulture involve the killing of living organisms. Whether we use herbicides or organic, non-chemical methods of weed control, or whether we simply weed, cultivate and harvest with our bare hands, we kill in order to sustain ourselves. It is an ethical question how we should go about this killing. Because unless you live on nuts and fruit and milk and carrion, you must kill living organisms in order to survive. In our killing, we should not be guided by visions of a return to original "native" purity.

Stephen H. Kellert, assistant professor of philosophy at Hamline University, is the author of In the Wake of Chaos: Unpredictable Order in Dynamical Systems (University of Chicago Press). He has also written essays on objectivity and on space perception.

Works Cited

Copyright  1997ebr
and the author. All rights reserved.