Swenson: Advances in Human Ecology, Vol. 6, 1997
Continuing the metaphor, and summarizing by restatement in different terms what has been said above, if ecological science is to be ecological in more than name only, it must provide a principled basis for unifying what are otherwise taken to be two incommensurable rivers‹the river of physics that flows downhill, and the river of biology, psychology, and culture that flows uphill. The absence of such a principled account invites the otherwise recurrent problem of the Presocratic Parmenides who had a fully coherent theory of the world which, however, could neither account for, nor even accommodate, his own existence. Recent advances in the theory of thermodynamics and self-organizing systems provide the basis for dissolving the postulates of incommensurability‹for providing the nomological basis for intention and intension in a physical world otherwise taken to be collapsing to disorder, and inherently meaningless (defined exhaustively by extension). Rather than being anomalous with respect to, or somehow defying or going against universal laws, the intentional dynamics of living things are seen to be a direct manifestation of them. This provides a principled basis for setting the active ordering characterizing the evolution of life, from Archean prokaryotes to the present rapid globalization of culture, in its universal context, and in so doing provide a principled foundation for ecological science in general, and human ecology, in particular.


The influence of Descartes, whose ideas were built into modern science at its origins, is hard to overestimate. Although the physics of Newton eclipsed the physics of Descartes it was the latter's dualistic metaphysics that provided the ground on which the former was able to flourish, and because psychology and physics were defined at their modern origins by Descartes, he is often referred to not only as the father of modern philosophy but the father of modern psychology and physics as well. What Cartesianism effected with its dead mechanical, or clock-work, world view was a means for the religious authority of Descartes' time to see science within a context it could accept, and for humans to see themselves, in the words of Descartes (1637/1986, p.67), as "masters and possessors of nature". Humans were taken to be sitting dualistically outside the clock like world learning the laws of physics to manipulate them towards their own, and hence, as privileged creations on Earth, divine ends. There was no theory of cultural ordering, or evolution in general, on this view because humans and the static mechanical physical world they were said to inhabit were taken to have been created full blown by divine act.

Cartesianism Defined The Epistemic Dimension Out Of The Physical World

A fundamental point to make with respect to the Cartesian world view is that by defining physics and psychology by their mutual exclusivity (call this the "first postulate of incommensurability" [Swenson, 1996]) it literally defined the active epistemic dimension out of the physical part of the world altogether. According to Descartes, the world was said to be divided into an active, purposive, perceiving "mind" (the "free soul", "thinking I," "Cartesian ego," or "self") on the one hand (the psychological part), and passive, "dead", purposeless "matter" (the physical part) on the other. The physical part, defined exclusively by its extension in space and time, was seen to consist of reversible, qualitiless, inert particles governed by deterministic causal laws from which the striving mind, seen as active, boundless, and without spatial or temporal dimension, was said to be immune. An immediate implicate of this view was that spontaneous ordering in general, and intentionality and meaning in particular, were thus eliminated from the physical world by definition, and needed to be extra-physically imposed from the outside. For Newton, Boyle, and other believers in Descartes mechanical world view who took the world to be extra-physically ordered by God, this was not a problem, but instead a reaffirmation of their belief.

The Problem Of Dualist Interactionism

Even if such a world were extra-physically given, there is an insurmountable problem with respect to how such a system could ever possibly work, and this was recognized almost immediately by many of Descartes own followers even in his own time. This is the problem of dualist interactionism. In particular, if psychology and physics ("mind" and "matter", or "self" and "other") are dualistically defined the way Descartes did by their mutual exclusivity there is no way, in fact, that they could ever interact. Leibniz recognized this central problem of Cartesianism by anticipating the law of energy conservation (the first law of thermodynamics). For one thing to interact with another, he argued, requires something conserved over the interaction, and if something is conserved over the two things or processes they are, at some level, part of the same thing. "There must be something which changes, and something which remains unchanged," wrote Leibniz (1714/1953, p. 27), anticipating, it could be argued, the second law of thermodynamics too. Without a conservation, the point is here, the two would be truly incommensurable‹two separate worlds without any possible relation or causal connection.
This separateness of the physical and mental was reinforced by Descartes theory of perception, and his famous cogito ego sum‹that what is known indubitably is the self reflective mind perceiving itself. The indubitability of matter, for Descartes, was not so clear, and with mind ultimately perceiving itself (the physical world exhaustively defined by extension is not in the category of mental or meaningful things), and his strong claim as to what is known, or what might exist, therefore, did not include an "outside" world at all. The epistemic dimension of the world, on Cartesian principles, it was soon realized, became a closed "Cartesian circle" with no way in or out, the immaterial mind perceiving itself, and no grounds to assert meaningful relations with, or the existence of, anything outside the individual self, ego, or self-motivating, self-reflective mind‹no environment at all, in effect, the active epistemic act, the subjective, simply given. It is seen with little elaboration that this view is inimical to a theory of ecological relations.

Closed-Circle Theory, Cultural Ordering, And The Epistemic Dimension

It is not surprising that post-Cartesian theories of knowledge, intentionality or meaning would become linked, explicitly or not, with theories of culture and evolution. Culture is clearly an epistemic process effected by meaningful relations, and the epistemic process itself would clearly seem to be evolutionary. What is interesting, however, is that post Cartesian theories of knowledge are typically seen to be allied with either cultural or evolutionary accounts as two competing paradigms, the work of the later Wittgenstein, Kuhn and others being exemplars of the first, and that of Popper, Campbell, Lorenz and others being exemplars of the second (Munz, 1985, 1987). Supporters of the first view ("closed-circle theorists"), who have worn incommensurability and relativism almost as a kind of badge of enlightenment, look to sociology or social psychology as the basis for meaning and intentionality, while evolutionary epistemologists, supporters of the second view, look to evolutionary theory, or, more particularly, to Darwinian theory, as the ground for the epistemic dimension. In this sub section, I will briefly review the former. The latter will be discussed in the context of the next section dealing specifically with evolution.
The roots of closed-circle theory can be found in Durkheim and Malinowski, in the "sociology of knowledge" of Mannheim, and earlier in Marx and Engels' work on ideology, and in Spencer's work before them. All of these, however, should not be construed as closed-circle theorists in the extremized post modern sense of Wittgenstein and Kuhn. The common thread that unites this lineage is that cultural ordering is seen to determine individual action. This core idea was later associated with what came to be known as "functionalism" in contrast to what is sometimes called "psychologism", the idea that cultural systems are rational constructions of individual intentional agents. On the former view, rather than culture being taken as the rational construction of individuals, individuals, instead, are taken as component productions of cultural systems. The contributions of the functionalists were substantial in that they recognized cultural system as self-organizing systems. The problem, however, was that they had no theory of self organization.
Malinowski, in explicit reaction to psychologism, as well as the then prevalent evolutionary views of history or culture, held that cultural systems were effectively closed circles where the parts all function to maintain the whole. Given that, on this view, the circular relations that define the system are seen to refer back to themselves‹that the function of the system is to maintain itself‹cultural systems were said to exist sui generis. Everything is explained with respect to something else that happens internal to the circular relations of the system. Here we see the beginnings of the transposition of the Cartesian circle from the individual to the cultural or social psychological level.