On ecological philosophy

Introduction to a forthcoming entry in the Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology:

Ecological philosophy does not have a single meaning. To some social thinkers it signifies a worldview that invokes ecology in promoting environmental protection; to others ecology is invoked in relation to a wider realm of social action; to philosophers of science, ecological philosophy may seem to be a synonym for the part of their academic field that focuses on ecology. For this entry in a bibliography in ecology, however, the term is taken to refer to conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science (hereon: ecology), and as such combines theorizing in ecology with some contributions from philosophy of ecology. Concepts and theorizing in ecology can be viewed in relation to the challenge faced by all ecologists (taken hereon to include environmental scientists) of dealing with the complexity of ongoing change in the structure of situations that have built up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded or situated within wider dynamics.

Eleven impulses regarding the conceptualization of such complexity are reviewed here, arranged roughly in order of when they emerged or were emphasized, with references chosen to provide points of entry into the subsequent history more than the most recent contributions on a given issue. The categorization of impulses is intended to stimulate readers with an interest in ecology to review their own conceptual framework so as to identify gaps or oversights and to be more self-conscious about how they address (or deflect) conceptual challenges in the field.

The categorization might also serve to stimulate critical reflection in subfields of ecology and other disciplines beyond those covered in the article as well as in areas where ecological philosophy is given a different meaning. For example, suppose a philosopher of ethics describes interactions among moral agents in terms of analogies to predation, parasitism, and symbiosis and advocates sustainable management of those interactions. Following Embeddedness and problematic boundaries (the ninth impulse below), one could ask how that ethical theory would be affected by paying attention to changes in the hidden non-moral variables and the embeddedness of the interactions in wider social dynamics….


The impulses:

1. Ecosystems and ecological communities are complex, yet have systemic properties

2. Systems of compartments and flows of energy, nutrients, and information


3.  Basic, general rules, especially about populations and their interactions


4.  Models are useful to generate interesting questions for investigation


5.  Particularism


6.  Patterns might reveal influences on dynamics


7.  Natural scales


8.  Data analysis in relation to tight hypotheses, experimental manipulations, or long term observations

9. Embeddedness and problematic boundaries in space and time


10.  Pragmatism, Partiality and Pluralism


11. Transversality and inversion


Earlier post on this bibliographic entry


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