Through the Forests and Fields of Ideas: An Introduction to an ‘Ecology of Discourse’

The Importance of Philosophy in Identity, Perspective and the Ecology of Beliefs and Culture.

Contemporary times have not been kind to the practice of philosophy. With the heightened focus on STEM in higher education, the de-funding of humanities, history, anthropology, arts and social sciences (or I like to say other-than-humanities with my interest in other-than-human life/being), the devaluing of these fields in a highly extrinsic economy that focuses only on profit margins and not intrinsic meaning, and a climate of intense political dissidence and closed-mindedness—philosophy can seem like a quaint proposition. What people frequently fail to realize, however, is that, whether or not they are interested in philosophy, they are constantly engaged in it. Their identities, their beliefs, their actions, the causes they support, who they are, how they understand themselves, are all constantly being shaped by the stuff of philosophy. The absence of philosophy in people’s lives has left many individuals completely adrift neither a sense of purpose, understanding, direction nor meaning, stemming from a lack of self-knowledge and introspection about who they are, and especially who they are in relation to others and the world. In the worst cases, being unable to employ critical philosophy leads to narrow-minded views and even an inability to understand the perspectives of those different from oneself. This is one of the sources of hate and unwillingness to cooperate and live with each other that is so endemic to the violent global politics of our era. The shout-box of social media is perfectly emblematic of what a lack of philosophy engenders.

Philosophy also gets a bad reputation from people who like to argue (something of which I am more than guilty). It seems to be a source of bickering. But I would counter that those who constantly bicker lack a sidereal understanding of what philosophy is. Philosophy, quite the contrary, is radically sensitive and open-minded in an era of insensitivity and unwillingness to listen. It is a kind of cultivation, not of living organisms, but rather of living ideas and beliefs. Philosophy comes from the Ancient Greek “φιλοσοφία”, “philosophia,” and derives from the roots “philo-” meaning “love” and “-sophos” meaning “wisdom.” In all my time studying and reading philosophy texts and engaging in dialogue, I find it funny how frequently those who love philosophy also seem to forget that it is something like a massive biosphere of living ideas that grew originally from an initial love of wisdom, the seed that gave birth to its forests of ideas. I am here reminded of a paper I read by Andrzej Marzec titled “Vegetal Philosophy (or Vegetal Thinking),” which explores how intertwined living thoughts and living plants are, and how our beings are folded together with vegetal life, a paper that has inspired much of this introduction.

Philosophy provides an enriched understanding of who we are and how to navigate our complex world. It doesn’t necessarily always provide individuals with direct knowledge or answers, and frequently its answers come with even more questions. Philosophy poses problems, raises concerns, observes conflicts and tensions, reveals new foot-trails to insight. Often philosophy’s questions are a trail-head of new explorations, some paths well-trod, others being reclaimed by the forests, others that are esoteric, uncertain, untrod. Some philosophies have devastating consequences for the whole ecosystem of thought and life, eroding the world through overuse and assumption, while others are hidden, watching from the wilderness and seeing the over-burdened trails from a sidelong perspective of being outsiders. It especially reveals new problems we missed or never before understood through critical thought and reflection. In a positive mode, it allows individuals to traverse the gulf of difference in identity and perspective, to learn more about what has been thought and is thought. Philosophy can even be a place where we encounter other lifeforms and beings, where we observe the perspectives of things that are not human.

Philosophy, in one sense, is the forum of ideas, beliefs, beings and perspectives. One can think of it as a mediator between the immense gulfs of differences between people’s identities, their cultural views, their spiritual and non-spiritual beliefs, their political ideologies, their subjective experiences of living and understanding the world. Philosophy is a tool for improving thinking about oneself and others. When different viewpoints, ideas and peoples meet, these tools for critical thought allow individuals to both disarm themselves to listen and understand the others’ thoughts, to reflect back upon oneself and how one relates to those, and also to recognize problems with a certain way of thinking that might be overlooked otherwise. Philosophy is not relegated to only human perspectives, but is a meeting place of different perspectives and beings, encountering of continuous emergence of similarities and differences, always indeterminate. Philosophy is primarily unbounded, unclosed, and therefore impossible to define its boundaries, impossible to delimit. More than anything, it enables us to take a close look at our own selves and even change what we believe or how we think of ourselves over time instead of being locked into the conventions and ideas that are handed down to us by others. With so many differing viewpoints and so much of the history of cultures, beliefs and ideas to draw upon for understanding oneself, individuals need critical tools for navigating all of it. Without that, one can end up stranded for years in poor understandings one didn’t even realize until much later. All those years of life might be spent neglecting the growth of one’s perspective and be a source of regret as one discovers later that one didn’t really know who they were nor what they really believed.

The forum that philosophy occurs in is frequently called discourse. Discourse is, of course, discussion, but with respect to philosophy, discourse is the entire breath and field of ideas and possible views. What we mean by “discussion” is the broadest sense of all actual and hypothetical discussions. (Discourse can happen with many ideas in one’s own head, so to speak. In some senses, ideas communicate of their own accord and bear relations to each other we explore by thinking.) If one individual believes in one thing, another another, one has X identity, another has Y identity, another doesn’t know themselves, another knows themselves very well, some are spiritual, some are not, others believe in one universal truth, others think that there are many different truths, some don’t even think there is any such thing as real truth and everything is mere appearances, some are pagans, Christians, Muslims, socialists, conservatives, liberals, leftists, anarchists, communists, primitivists, humanists, deep ecologists, animists, vitalists, materialists, transcendentalists, idealists, pragmatists, universalists, relativists, constructionists, modernists, postmodernists, some belong to this culture, others to that culture, others have made their own culture, or this -ist, that -ism, that -ian, all these different attitudes, beliefs, perspectives, viewpoints—discourse is all of that.

Discourse is the entire biosphere of ideas, the entire world, not merely humans who have supposed themselves the “creators of philosophy,” but rather the more abstract sense of exchange of being, thinking and feeling from different perspectives, and a great many, or rather the majority, of those perspectives are not “human”. When we see the whole world as alive and full of agency, we see that ideas are expressed through entanglements, tensions, conflicts and cooperation of being. (We may even turn philosophy to question whether “the human” even exists, or examine whether the concept of “the human” is just a product of a certain kind of philosophy.) Discourse is where the life of ideas all grow and change and affect one another. Discourse can also be more limited; it can be like a large ecosystem or climate region. Spiritual or interfaith discourse, for example, might deal with all the kinds of religious, spiritual and nonspiritual beliefs people have held, seeking to explore spiritual knowledge and how these cultures and perspectives relate. Ethical discourse might deal with all the kinds of ideas people have had about what is right, or good, or what one should and shouldn’t do, across all different cultures, time periods and such, to develop a better sense of what is ethical overall. We might talk about scientific discourse, or political discourse, or artistic discourse, or intercultural discourse, or even issues like sexuality, gender, indigeneity, environment, and so on. The problem that most philosophers have encountered in trying to describe what philosophy is is that you cannot really define it as any one thing. It is not a single idea; it is an entire planet of living ideas within different perspectives all interacting, continuously evolving, always indeterminate and uncertain.

Another critical tool philosophy provides is that it frees us to appreciate the value or truth of some ideas, even if we do not agree with the rest of the viewpoints an individual holds. That enables us to even adopt some of those ideas for our own without rejecting the merit they have just because we do not like the individual who says them and their other beliefs. Without philosophy, there are fewer critical tools for picking apart ideas and distinguishing how they knit together into the whole, how different ideas affect other ideas, how different beliefs relate to others.

I liken this to the differing perspectives of a layman and a botanist/ecologist. A layman who has no knowledge of the plant life of a forest may end up looking at the forest as a whole and either liking or disliking it. Or perhaps, they look at it and merely see a bunch of plants and trees without anything more to that story. To the botanist/ecologist, the forest is not just a collective whole; they can identify and distinguish all the individual plants and the various habitats they create. They also can see how these plants relate to each other. They see some plants that are absolutely vital to the habitat and sustain many forms of life. They see some plants that are invasive and are killing off other lifeforms. They can see interesting moments of symbiosis and competition. They observe all these intricate relations between lifeforms which the layman may not even notice occurring. They even understand how the forest relates to entirely different ecosystems and other forests. If the forest is dying, the botanist’s understanding of how things relate within the forest can give them insight into how to revitalize it. They can identify which part of the forests are causing the destruction and which parts can be helped to counter it.

If that forest is an individual’s worldview, then their beliefs, ideas, experiences, understandings, influences, cultures, spiritualities, actions, identities are the various plant-life that inhabits that worldview. In philosophy we might call the forest of their perspective their Weltanschauung (“worldview” in German because philosophy bears a certain appreciation of culture, history and who likely has given us these concepts). If the individual is unfamiliar with philosophy and critical thinking, then they are allowing the forest of their beliefs and ideas to be completely dictated by the outside world without any say in how they understand themselves and others. They are told what to think until they exercise their autonomy of thought and question what is there. With philosophy, there is a kind of introspective, self-knowledge, which, like the botanist, allows them to cultivate their own thinking, to grow some thoughts, to explore new territories of ideas, beliefs, experiences, to encounter the world without a predetermined understanding dictated by happenstance. Following the root systems of one particular idea may lead to an entirely different philosophical biome. Reading about a thought, idea or feeling one has never considered on one’s own may suddenly turn into a trail towards other possibilities and lands one has never explored or considered.

Philosophy is thus like ecology. It involves knowledge of certain ideas and beliefs, as well as reading into how other people have already explored those ideas and beliefs in ways that you and I likely haven’t. Just like the botanist or ecologist, there are only so many plants one can store in one’s memory. Everyone’s knowledge is situated and particular, personal and limited to what they have experienced, learned and/or read. With philosophy, there are only so many ideas, perspectives and beliefs one can know in a finite lifetime. It’s project is therefore not to reveal “ultimate truth” to be held with an individual (although for some individuals it is, and that too is a philosophical disagreement), but rather a process of thought-life, of living and thinking. Hence we sometimes use the term living or lived philosophy, since philosophy is, in its applications, whatever it might be to the scope of life of its user.

But where ecology and philosophy make their primary contribution to thinking is that they help us understand relations between ideas (and in ecology’s case, relations between different forms of life, whereas philosophy expresses relations between living ideas), especially how we, ourselves, relate to ideas and life. Philosophy works primarily through analogy and association, and then, as things become clearer, it turns to more exacting understandings, explorations of inconsistencies, how some things work and don’t work. We might talk about the life of a belief or a thought and how it affects other beliefs and thoughts. More than that, philosophy, just like ecology, doesn’t just deal with one forest. It also shows how forests relate to entirely different ecosystems.

One person’s Weltanschauung might be like a forest with tall trees, grandiose ideas built on top of each other, where the whole tree is a singular organism. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari called this ‘arboreal’ thinking. Another individual’s might be and underground ecosystem of root vegetables, where their thoughts move about between ideas easily, creating very interesting and surprising creative views and beliefs. Deleuze referred to this kind of thinking as ‘rhizomatic’, like root vegetables, which connect underground in intricate networks relating things across each other. Yet another’s might be like an ocean where they move freely in any direction of thought or belief without sticking to one single place. In their ocean of thought, there might be very few things that are definite, things are spread out and distant, but the scope of it seems boundless. It would be a very cosmic perspective, so to speak. The arboreal forest of thought might be able talk endlessly of detail. The rhizomatic underground of thought might be extremely creative, constantly generating new things no one has thought of. The ocean of thought might be able to step back from it all and make grand observations that may relate many things at once but in such a general sense that it is difficult to apply to a life. And those are just the characteristics of these ecosystems.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari talk about these kinds of rhizomatic versus arboreal kinds of thinking in Anti-Oedipus, but that text is extremely advanced and should probably not be one’s first introduction to a philosophy book. Simplifying it as I have is, ultimately, over-simplification, but philosophy is also based upon frames of reference, and this differs from being to being, person to person, with regard to how much they have learned and engaged in philosophy and discourse. Anyone can and should do it, regardless of their background. (Everyone does philosophy and engages with ideas whether they realize it anyway.) Philosophy is a matter of personal and communal growth.

With regard to writing an introduction to these notions, I must simplify. With philosophy, there often needs to be a certain familiarity with certain ‘vegetal’ living thoughts. A cursory glance at a tree without time spent studying the tree is not going to tell one much about it, and one can easily find oneself offer the most vague, incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate notions by only touching the outer bark. Likewise, if that tree is an idea, one may be more or less familiar with them, and therefore have varying degrees of depth and rigor to how one expresses that idea. (And those can be improved by expanding one’s knowledge.) And there is no means to measure philosophical growth. It is a process of engagement with thought and living, not a rigidly bound list of accepted facts or ‘truths and untruths’. Ultimately philosophy is both something we use and also live-through, and one may use and live through it as one pleases with as much finesse as one chooses to acquire. (PBS’ Idea Channel closed their show with an exploration of “ideas themselves” in a similar vein to I am talking about, although approaching it from a vastly different perspective. They discussed this in a video titled “What Are Ideas, and Who Gets to Have Them?”, and probably there is very little and also a great deal we would agree upon, and that is partially the point.)

And then, with philosophy, we can start to even talk about how these different perspectives and views relate to each other. The analogy of these different ecosystems lets us see how we all, in fact, do not think like each other. We have interesting and different perspectives. And within our identities and perspectives, we are already many living ideas that are all interacting, some competing, some in symbiosis, some existing by themselves. In some respects we might question if we are indeed individuals at all, or rather each a kind of “many,” composed of experiences, attitudes, ideas, all of which come from the more-than-human living world and our engagement with them throughout our lives.

Already I have used this analogy of forests, ecosystems and ecology to relate how you think of your perspective, your beliefs, your identity, everything about you, who you are, to the relations of trees and plants, how some support each other and others hurt each other, how some of your understandings are good, while others can be improved, and still others are harmful and might need to be removed for the rest of your perspective to be improved (but which ones are which and who gets to decide?). And it really isn’t mine or anyone else’s business to cultivate that forest of your thought for you. It is your own business. Your critical introspection about your own beliefs, your identity, is yours to cultivate and no one else’s. Those who write about philosophy seek to provide interesting tools of thinking for others to explore and find use for on their own. Even Deleuze and Guattari say this of their own books. In an open forum of discourse, a place where people are open-minded, others are always willing to lend their perspectives without demeaning or derogating each other. That is, they provide an open-minded field where ideas can meet each other, and all individuals can benefit from the exchange of beliefs, perspectives, experiences and concepts. In a closed-minded environment, individuals are trying to use their ideas and beliefs to kill other ideas and beliefs, just like some plants in an ecosystem are extremely aggressive and seek to damage others for their own survival without a concern for the well-being of other lifeforms. The open forum of thought involves individuals cultivating their own perspectives but also allowing the cultivation of other perspectives different from their own.

Philosophy requires practice, reading, but more than anything, it requires doing. These discourse fields are indeed places, where ideas grow. Philosophy occurs within a community and across communities, places where dialogue and encounters with beliefs, ideas and perspectives can happen. And these can be spontaneous. Philosophy is not just what occurs in an academic classroom or in the office of a researcher. Philosophy is the very expression of discourse within the ecology of ideas. One can hold conversations with others in real life, and one should, in order to develop one’s aptitude for philosophy and critical thought. One can certainly even converse with oneself about ideas, what one thinks about them or imagine interlocutors who hold perspectives other than one’s own. This later method is generally better for introspection, whereas we might say direct encounter with Others who hold different beliefs and ideas is a form of extrospection. Encountering different ideas and perspectives—things which one doesn’t yet know and cannot necessarily imagine on one’s own—is the richest soil for growth.

Learning philosophy is, in my perspective, done best through engaging in discussion and experimenting with ideas and ways of approaching discourse. It takes years and years of practice to get the hang of, and no one is ever done with it. Like a life, philosophy never reaches total closure. It remains open and unresolved. This is also the case with your own life, which, even upon death, remains open-ended as to the rest of the world that comes after you, or even whether you have existence after death.

Philosophy is also supplemented by reading many texts where other people have already devoted their lives to an idea. And one must also seek to read those texts critically. One should read them recognizing both the problems and merits of ideas contained within. One’s interpretation and understanding also changes. That is, philosophy fundamentally involves change, growth, transformation of being, perspective, belief, understanding. What one might have disagreed with at one point, one agrees with now, and visa versa. One might recognize one misunderstood something. Or one might rediscover that some understanding one had was right all along. It is never final, it is never closed, and thus never closed-minded. It is important to leave things unresolved, that is, Open, open to change, open to shifting oneself to new frames of mind, open-minded.

I do not like to attribute a singular value to anything because that is never the final story, but if the reader perhaps is looking for one, and would be unsatisfied if I didn’t even attempt to give one, perhaps philosophy’s value is in reaching a state of open-mindedness mixed with the integrity of self-knowledge—one reaches a kind of homeostasis in which one is open to change while at once understanding oneself and others very well, open to changing one’s understanding, and able to recognize one’s understanding with both clarity and muddiness at any moment. Philosophy is thus a kind of art of living and thinking in the ecological world of ideas, beliefs, beings and perspectives. One learns who and what one is through the practice of knowing oneself and others. Then again, each of us might already be many.