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e-book The human condition: an ecological and historical view

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Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. The Human Condition John Kekes Abstract This book is a response to the growing disenchantment in the Western world with contemporary life. More This book is a response to the growing disenchantment in the Western world with contemporary life. Authors Affiliations are at time of print publication.

Print Save Cite Email Share. Show Summary Details. Subscriber Login Email Address. Library Card. View: no detail some detail full detail. Animalia are a necessary presupposition of existentialia What we have to recognize is the place cleared within nature for the possibility of the human, that is, historical, or historicizing-historicized, nature. The perspective offered by the anthropological circle is double. On the other it opens the way for a pluralist realism of stratified reality beyond the worried, conservative strictures of determinism or the unanchored musings of constructivism.

The evolutionary history of the human face | Nature Ecology & Evolution

It is both the fruit and the root of critical ontology. Thus the historical hyperseparation of human from nature matters to a person, and to a community of persons. Uncovering the conditions of the production of a knowledge claim does not automatically falsify it. That knowledge claims are produced by situated knowers is undeniable, but it is a mistaken inference that the fact of situatedness therefore invalidates the content of the claim.

The fact that Kant thought a defense of our right to use categories of the understanding was necessary at all indicated his recognition that the categories of thinking and those of being do not coincide. In this he agreed with the skeptics and empiricists. But the need for a defense of the use of categories leads us to a second point. What his retention of the problematic Idea of the thing-in-itself indicates is that there is a world on which thought depends for its existence. Critique deflates claims where it reveals potential or real bias, but it also inflates them by referring to a world beyond which conditions or feeds thought, indifferent to whether it can be known or not.

Historical background

Like criticism generally, critical ontology accepts the conditioned nature of knowing, but unlike some forms of it rejects relativism. Even if assemblages of categories are several and varied, they are relative to human interests and values, and these are understood to be limited.

Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology

It advances a pluralism which accepts multiple and diverse ways of dividing the world, but asserts that some ways are better than others relative to sets of instrumental, epistemic, aesthetic, and moral values which orient evaluation. A constitutive principle is something that we use implicitly or explicitly that shapes our perceptions and experience of the world and of ourselves. Categories often play the role of conditions or background assumptions in affecting the selection of what is significant or meaningful in an experience. I understand the process of using and disclosing concepts which may function as ontological categories to be historical, unending, contestable, fallible, and this entails that pluralism and multiple voices are obligatory.

Categories are irreducible or indispensable constitutive and a fortiori regulative terms of explanation or articulation.

Categorial ontologies are local and experimental. Emergentism attempts to explain the genesis of novelty with reference to a single fixed frame of categories and of value, often making the classical appeal to a universalizing view from nowhere, asserting a cumulative arrangement of granular units which sometimes also reflects an old dialectic of wholes and parts. Stratified ontology does not begin with the emergence of novel objects themselves but with the categories discursively employed to understand them. This entails acknowledging multiple frames, interests and situated knowers.

I stated above that the problem for ecological philosophical anthropology is not simply to demonstrate the unity of humans with nature, but to articulate both continuity and discontinuity. Genetic relations have the tendency to actually veil dependence in this sense because the relation is thought only in terms of punctual causal efficacy presence rather than diffuse enduring maintenance duration. Once we have come to exist through evolutionary development, it seems, our continuity with nature is exhausted, our manifold connections with the material and natural world are truncated.

Whether it is reference to smallest bits such as selfish genes, or universal laws such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, genetic explanation misses the radical, generalized dependence of humanity on the material world because both are phenomena which escape the human scale of everyday provisioning and reproduction.

Emphasizing genetic relations blinds one to any other sort of dependence aside from canalized determination, or at best, systems of determinations. Both background the significance of existential dependence, sustenance, maintenance, and reproduction. Categorial ontology, as opposed to genetic explanation, allows us a better view of dependency relations, as well as of human continuity and discontinuity with the natural world. To better see this difference we can begin with some general premises here, as stated by Hartmann. His being in the world presupposes the being of the world.

Without it he cannot live. The world, on the other hand, can very well exist without him. The organic world And since Each layer presents a coherent but not closed assemblage of peculiar categories employed as constitutive principles. There is a stratum of material or physical reality, including for example the categories of corporeality, space, time, process, condition, substance, causality, reciprocity, dynamic structure and equilibrium, entropy, the Second Law of thermodynamics, gradients, dissipative structures, and so on.

While it is obvious that many animals are intelligent such as ravens, dolphins, and nonhuman primates , it is less clear whether they have any capacity to reflect on their needs and desires in an evaluative way. These include the power of conceptual thought, knowledge acquisition, ideal relations, moral evaluation and values, symbolic communication signification , teleological reasoning, personality, and all of the categories of the complex and variable social relationships evinced by humanity.


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The words material, vital, psychic, and eccentric name strata, domains, or regimes of categories. The claim of the categorial ontologist is that we cannot make sense of the phenomena at each respective level unless we use categories such as those listed, for they are indispensable or irreducible for understanding.

The Capitalist Law of Value and the Destruction of Nature

Hartmann adopts a relatively rigid view of the stacking of these layers of categories, in part because he wants to preserve the ideal of the disinterested view from nowhere. Because I reject this classical idea and embrace situated knowledges, I believe we can be more flexible about the arrangement and relations between strata. To take his own geological metaphor further: it is in one sense entirely contingent in what order geological strata are deposited, and volcanic eruptions, plate collisions, erosions and other disturbances can upset any neat distribution of layers.

For the purposes of political ecology, it is important to recognize the existential dependence of higher on lower, but also autonomy of higher in relation to the lower. This is not a genetic relation, but one of conditioning. The lower tiers of being are independent of the higher ones and do not need them, but the higher are dependent on the lower. Instead of answering the question about how the more complex comes from the more primitive, some forms of emergentism affirm the reality of the more complex through its superinforming of the lower.

Being real requires an organization that shapes the existence and the behavior of members or parts. The initial inspiration of emergentism was to justify the observation of genuine difference and novelty at the level of the organic in contrast to the inorganic world, as well as minds in relation to bodies.

While it has succeeded in highlighting one form of categorial novelty or difference, it has also tried to generalize its findings by applying the same insight to the human and social realms. It focuses on one kind of difference just as causal accounts focus on one type of continuity. But focus on particular forms or structures and their emergent reality leaves us just as oblivious to the diffuse existential dependence of the higher forms on the lower as do other genetic views.

Critical ontology is a way of determining just how much continuity and difference, unity and multiplicity there is in the world, as opposed to the rationalistic desire to impose unity through use of one type of category. If we only think in terms of a difference of structures , say rocks, plants, animals, human being, society, it is impossible to determine the unique in them because we submit the hierarchy of structural units to a single frame of reference or set of categories. Therefore, the final cause of the origin of life will have been the pull of gradients to be demolished.

This emergentism dissolves difference in the world by relying on one stratum of categories only. This type of genetic perspective is often obscuring as much as illuminating. Here it obscures genuine human scale ecological relations, our diffuse dependence on nature, as much as gene-centered explanations do.

Individual things are not to be seen primarily as units in a hierarchical, granulated series of forms, but as reticulate centers cross-cut by categorial strata. A single stratum of categories is a coherent assemblage of mutually implicating terms, and, at any level above the lowest, involves the appearance of a collective categorial novelty which defines the level. This does not entail that lower categories do not recur in higher strata, but such recurrences do entail significant modification of the recurrent.

Such a scheme allows us to bear witness to human continuity with the natural world without sacrificing our uniqueness, nor our irremediable, persistent, and diffuse dependence upon and continuity with nature. This is precisely what is needed in order to approach the problem of a sustainable human society.

The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View

If human beings are simply gene-machines in an ecosystem or dissipative structures unconsciously burning and building, it is hard to imagine our purchase on a horizon of values to guide us out of the dilemma. If we are taken as ensouled responsible stewards of nature—or worse, postmodern loci of subjugation—then we may forget that we too are products of and embedded in the natural world, and not above it. Here these incomplete and incompatible positions dissolve into a stratified, pluralist realism which can account both for our need for criticism of the current order and our embeddedness in a natural one.

It is a human ecology in the broadest meaning of the phrase. I argued that it is important to distinguish between two forms of naturalism, conservative and emancipatory, but that this distinction relies upon a dualism which must be critically examined. The same dualisms recur in ecophilosophical interpretations of the place of the human in nature as well as in classical theories of human nature.

I presented a resource in the tradition of philosophical anthropology which enables us to avoid dualistic thinking and espouse an emancipatory naturalism by resisting reductionism and acknowledging the diffuse dependence of human being on natural processes. In order to fully illuminate the biological prerequisites of the existentialia it became necessary to define an appropriate approach to ontology.