David Abram

David Abram’s first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996) has influenced pretty much everyone in the world of ecopsychology and environmental philosophy. Its themes are summed up in the subtitle: Perception and Language in a More-than-human world. By way of introduction, I’ll touch on each of those themes.

Perception
Abram is more than just a philosopher; he’s also an ecologist, anthropologist and slight-of-hand magician. That unusual combination gave Abram some unique insights about perception:

“The task of the magician is to startle our senses
and free us from outmoded ways of thinking.”
(Interview with Scott London, 2018).

Abram’s interest in perception led him to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and he develops that into an embodied environmental philosophy. Abram challenges conventional ideas about subject and object, inside and out. He reveals that our perception is always participatory; it involves “an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives” (Abram, 1996). Thus he comes to understand the body as “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996). There are echoes here of Eugene Gendlin who understood the body as extending beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997).

Language
It’s not only humans who have a living language. Abram suggests that “various animals and other natural forms today speak in their own unique dialects” (Abram, 1996). Oral cultures fully appreciate this reality; they’re aware that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (Abram, 1996). But the influence of writing has led us into a “more abstract mode of thinking” that conceals our sensuous, embodied relationship to the more-than-human world (Abram, 1996).

Wentworth Falls. Australia.

A more-than-human world
We are part of a more-than-human community: “the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests” (2018). Every member of this wider community has its own wisdom and way of being.

“Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ” (Abram, 1996).

Abram was one of the first to recognize the importance of animism for ecological thinking. Animism had long been dismissed as a primitive error, but by the early 1990’s Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey had identified it as a powerful influence amongst Neo-Pagans. Abram was on a parallel track to Harvey, following the thread through older, indigenous cultures.

Abram continues to explore these themes in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010), another book I highly recommend. It’s important to note that Abram is a practical philosopher and his work with the Alliance for Wild Ethics is perhaps as important as his writing.

I’m delighted to say that David Abram will be joining me on the Ecology and Research channel of The Embodiment Conference. This on-line event takes place from 14 – 25 October and it’s free to join.

Merleau-Ponty

This is the first of a number of posts that introduce thinkers who’ve been especially influential on my work. I begin with the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), who was a pioneer in the study of embodiment.

Merleau-Ponty

Merleau-Ponty was fascinated by our ‘being-in-the-world’ – the way our consciousness is incarnate in the world. Our awareness doesn’t emerge from a disembodied mind floating somewhere beyond physical reality, but is part of an active relationship between us and the world.

He concluded that the process by which we come to understand the world emerges from a unity between subjects and objects that is the direct result of our embodiment. As he rather beautifully puts it, “[m]y body is the fabric into which all objects are woven” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Though his primary concern was with perception as an embodied process, he understood our entire being-in-the-world in the same way:

“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself; my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue … ”
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

Practical, embodied knowing is difficult – if not impossible – to express in words and quite different from the theoretical knowledge we can talk about. Think about the last time you used your computer keyboard: If you have any familiarity with it, you didn’t need to think about where the keys were. In an odd sense you don’t know; if I asked you to draw the keyboard layout for me, you would probably find it impossible. This is a “knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). This upsets the Cartesian world-view, because it’s a form of knowing that transcends subject/object dualism: The ‘I’ that knows is tangled with what is known.

Phenomenology: What is it and why should you care?

Would a sentient fish ever wonder what water is? Do you ever wonder what time is? Probably not: Some aspects of our experience are so ‘obvious’ that we just don’t notice them. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that aims to uncover the obvious. The aspects of our experience that we take for granted can be difficult to identify, but these hidden assumptions and attitudes entwine us.

Phenomenology originated with Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Husserl wanted to very carefully examine our experience, teasing out our presuppositions and interpretations to try to get closer to the things themselves. He called our everyday, habitual way of experiencing the world the ‘natural attitude’, and phenomenology offers a way to step back from that. Phenomenology is similar to mindfulness in the way that it invites us to become “aware of the fullness, variety and transiency of experiences in the stream of consciousness” (Patrik). In other ways we might see phenomenology as a scientific project. Husserl saw it a rigorous “science of the essence of consciousness” (Husserl), and there’s some validity to that. Phenomenology is influential in psychology, and has been applied to both Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science.

Phenomenology is essentially the study of phenomena – that is, things as they appear in our lived experience. It’s grounded in careful observation and description. Phenomenologists investigate all kinds experience, including perception, imagination, emotions and bodily awareness. Phenomenology was foundational in my psychotherapy training and it’s vital in Focusing Oriented Therapy: Being able to pay careful attention to my own experience and that of my client is essential to good therapeutic practice.

Husserl begins with the notion of “intentionality” – the way that all consciousness is “consciousness of something”. That sounds very obvious but that’s partly what phenomenology is about; paying attention to what we think is obvious. It can be quite revealing to pay careful attention to our awareness. Let’s say I’m signing a document. We might assume that I’ll be aware that I’m holding a pen while I’m signing. But let’s look more closely: In the moment that I’m signing, I’m not paying attention to the pen at all. In a strange way the pen is transparent to my awareness. If it stops working, then the pen will leap into the foreground of my consciousness, but if not I’ll just sign my name as I have so many times before.

Phenomenology isn’t just for therapists and academics; it can be usefully applied in everyday life. It can help us avoid errors in reasoning like confirmation bias (preferring perspectives that support our pre-existing views) and projection bias (assuming that most people think just like we do). I invite you to question what seems ‘obvious’ in your own life. My guess is that you’ll become more aware of the nuances of experience that we miss when we rely on the habits and unthinking assumptions of the ‘natural attitude’.