Reply to David Abram (expanded web version)

a shorter version will appear in Environmental Ethics 24 (2002): 111-12

Meg Holden

David Abram in Environmental Ethics 23 (2001): 335-36 points out some very embarrassing editorial mistakes in my paper, "Phenomenology versus Pragmatism," Environmental Ethics 23 (2001): 37-56 . In the process of editing, a quote from John Dewey got attributed to Abram, one of Abram's quotes seemed as if it came from Richard Bernstein, and I somehow listed Abram's publisher wrong. I'm sorry. It's sloppy editing on my part and I can imagine how insulting this is to a scholar.

Regarding the substance of my paper, I can only assume that my paper (as Abram says) "made its way past" the reviewers because of some merit. I would be very interested to read Abram's evidence that, as he claims, "Holden's remarkable misquotes are accompanied by an equally remarkable misconstrual of the arguments in Spell of the Sensuous."

The argument in my paper is that pragmatic philosophy is better suited to helping more people, in the present context, approach sustainable lives. If our common task is to find an environmental ethic that makes a difference in policy, institutional, and social settings, phenomenology will work wonderfully for a few, but pragmatism will appeal to more people. In his letter, Abram claims not to advocate phenomenology as the only philosophy amenable to helping people create sustainable societies. He says he sees phenomenology as one approach among many. This raises an interesting question: how does phenomenology fit in a larger array of environmental philosophies? To get to sustainability, from here, what I tried to argue was that the tradition of pragmatism has more to offer than does phenomenology.

Abram protests that his work should not be taken as representative of the rich tradition of phenomenology as a whole. Fair enough, but The Spell of the Sensuous does need to be treated as a landmark book in the field of environmental ethics. It is on these grounds that this book needs to be read very critically. When I commented on Abram's profession in my article, my comment was based on what I could gather talking to him and the rest of the discussion group he led at the 1999 Orion Fire and Grit conference. More basically, it seems to me that his profession as someone who writes very compellingly and expressively needs to be reconciled in some way with his skeptical view of the value of the written word.

Abram's embrace of native traditions does not seem that useful to me in the ethical project of finding space and resources for decent lives for people who do not retain indigenous metaphysical conceptions of life. For example, the value of the collective over the individual good held in many indigenous cultures, which would clearly get us out of many environmental and socioeconomic messes, is not an ethic available to all. What difference does it make to argue that oral cultures are more enduring when they're all dying out and a majority of the world's people may be operating with ties to capital more binding than those to their family or group? We need to negotiate with capitalism if we are to engage with this given world.

I agree with Abram that neither language, nor much less the written word, can express everything. Language certainly provides us with some significant tools, however. We use these tools to examine our own worldview, by contrasting our ways of thought and action with those of other cultures. The philosopher Charles Taylor emphasizes that we do not overcome our background epistomology, our uncritical acceptance of the given world and its boundaries, without attempting to articulate and bring that epistomology into the foreground. Some people are able to consider the alternative ways of thinking and living of native cultures within their epistomological horizon. What work must be done with those people whose horizon is not so expansive? For these, and from my vantage point they are the majority, more bridge-building work will have to be done. It is here that pragmatism, by explicitly embracing rationalism and the scientific method, serves us better than phenomenology.

Phenomenology and pragmatism share a notion of truth as dependent on historical background. To Heidegger, things may show themselves differently to different people. As a result, Heidegger considered the idea of universal truth to be a Western decadence. A pragmatic response to this state of affairs is to seek the ideas most relevant to coping with the social and environmental problems related to this decadence. Developing a scientific language was key in the attempt to overcome the historicity and cultural particularity of dialog. William James discussed the benefit of scientific language as language from which consequences flow:

Many were the ideal prototypes of rational order: teleological and esthetic ties between things . . . as well as logical and mathematical relations. The most promising of these at first were of course the richer ones, the more sentimental ones; but the history of the latter's application is a history of steadily advancing successes, while that of the sentimentally richer ones is one of relative sterility and failure. Take those aspects of phenomena which interest you as a human being most . . . and barren are all your results. Call the things of nature as much as you like by sentimental moral and esthetic names, no natural consequences follow from the naming . . . But when you give the things mathematical and mechanical names and call them so many solids in just such positions, describing just such paths with just such velocities, all is changed . . . Your "things" realize the consequences of the names by which you classed them. (1)

Clearly, the pursuit of science has brought spectacular progress in understanding and manipulating the world. Does this prove our society any better than former ones? Certainly not, as Abram and I both could agree. Still, our success in controlling and manipulating our environment would have come as a surprise to prerational thinkers like Plato. Plato's ideal for human reason was to grasp the order of things in the universe so as to attain peace and become fully virtuous beings. Plato did not believe in the possibility of exact control because the world was not precise and anyway was always in flux. The fact that we have attained so much control in our times begs the question that Charles Taylor has asked during a class lecture: "Okay, Plato, how do you explain this anomaly?"

Part of the great success of Galilean science lay in the development of a language that was in an important sense insulated from the cultural language, or the language of human significance, around it. Part of what science attempted to do was to expunge culture and its artifacts from human beliefs and lived experience in order to get behind these to an underlying meaning. The language of science was constructed to allow the possibility of cross-cultural consensus on verifiable results.

Scientific naming schemes are not always appropriate. Human sciences and regular conversation cannot operate in this way because they depend on people and their different opinions (although, for most of human history, the idea of individuals having particular beliefs is incomprehensible). As James recognized, narrow rationality is incapable of coming to grips with most of the important things in our lives. The language we use in conversation draws on our ordinary understanding of what it means to be human in certain contexts. Pragmatists are able to raise the scientific model to the level of ideal method by emphasizing the idea of the community of inquirers who, using a dialogical, communicative approach to knowledge, can test ideas against one another and reconcile differences through continued conversation and debate.

It is possible that the switch we have made, in the modern world, from seeing the world as ineffably magical to seeing the world as eventually controllable, is an irreversible switch. Abram does not address this possibility. Historically, certain issues have been so deeply embedded that they cannot be seen as intellectual premises. These issues can be resolved only by historical changes and, once resolved, can never again be conceived in the old fashion. For example, at the time of the French and American Revolutions, women were not given the vote for the well-argued reasons that women were neither competent nor interested in matters of the state. Women's orientation was toward the home and citizenship was a militarized concept at the time. Attaining women's suffrage required a new gender-identity framework to develop in which the orientation of women toward home or the military no longer could be seen as limiting their interest in citizenship and matters of the state. The issue of women's suffrage became more clearly circumscribed and unhinged from gender identity theory, until the argument that women were not competent or interested enough in voting no longer could be seen seriously.

Abram suggests in The Spell of the Sensuous that words and their meanings are motivated, or purposely intended to mean and be named in some specific way. If language is motivated, we must ask if the universe itself is a theory of signs, such that reality consists of a finite set of fundamental building materials. The early rationalists, Hobbes and Locke, opposed the notion of language being motivated. For them, and the theories that grew from them to dominate the rationalist world, thought and language were separate. Thought was mental. Language was the means for the arbitrary transfer of thought into verbal form, in order to register the consequences of our own thoughts and to communicate with others.

Even without the notion of motivated language, Hobbes held a concern similar to Abram's about the danger of losing the connection between words and things. Hobbes connected words directly with liberty, because to him, all individuals have the freedom to make words mean what we want and no one can impose meaning upon us. As a corollary, we lose the connection between words and things to the extent that we do not exercise this freedom and only parrot the meanings ascribed to words by others. Along with this freedom comes the constant danger of becoming parrots of the meanings ascribed to words by others. In this way, we lose the connection between words and things in a way not unlike that described by Abram. The moral, for both Hobbes and Abram, is that language can get the better of us if meanings are not kept clear, if original meanings are forgotten, if the original correlations we put together cease to make sense in the current context, or if we cease to agree to use the same language in a collaborative situation. Language, thus, is both very useful and very dangerous. (2)

John Locke considered the gravest danger in allowing language to drift away from original meanings to be preventing us from challenging current events and their effects on us. Locke had a vision of the unified progression of knowledge that was blocked by all non-scientific uses of language, that settled a mist before our eyes and made us victims of the cloudy uses of our own language. (3)

I point out these rational arguments about language not to associate their ideas with pragmatism nor to insinuate their superiority over phenomenological arguments about language. Instead, my suggestion is that these simplistic ways of thinking about language are imbedded very deeply in the way thought and language are commonly considered. If we need to break these habits of thought as Abram forcefully argues, we will need more than an alternative based on cultures that are largely foreign. We will require, in addition, detailed and careful presentation of what it is we believe currently, because these beliefs are mostly subconscious. Evidence will have to be found to expose why these beliefs are inaccurate or insufficient.

The pragmatic notion of the experimenting society is a way forward toward sustainability that does not require explicit refusal of the rationalist turn nor explicit embracing of preliterate cultures. An experimenting society is a liberal state committed to science as well as reform and to seeing these two as intertwined. The role of the state is to mobilize information and other resources to rectify inequalities and undesirable living conditions. Reforms, along with all the information that contributes to their construction, must be designed and implemented publicly. They are designed to protect against foreseeable serious hazards, to err on the side of caution, to reduce uncertainty, and to encourage learning. Beneficial change, therefore, is based on people's commitment to democratic deliberation as well as people's tolerance of disruption. The pluralistic nature of our societies guarantees that many contrary experiments will be in place at any time, at many different scales, and the public must be both engaged and committed in order to tolerate the inconsistencies and uncertainties and to pull out the better experiments from the rest.

To the extent that people derive their identities from the places they occupy and the people and other beings they contact, any thesis advocating a new sustainable society urges people to change their identity, their sense of self in relation to history and the world around them. In order to make this argument for change sufficiently persuasive, I believe that we must be very sensitive to the current spatiality and historicity of social life. In addition to the already generous arguments for change set forth in The Spell of the Sensuous, I believe that pragmatism offers this sensitivity where phenomenology does not.

I responded to The Spell of the Sensuous because I found Abram's book powerful and insightful, as did the friends who recommended it to me. I applaud in particular Abram's approach of connecting philosophy with history, treating philosophy as inseparable from the detail of life. I want to push this approach further, toward life in New York City, for example, and for the lives of many others who have not had the opportunity to walk with Aborigines or speak with traditional people in Indonesia and Nepal. I need to construct a bridge between the capitalist state around me and the society Abram envisions. I will continue to follow his work with much interest and hopefully less defensive a stance than he surmised from my paper.


1. William James, Principles of Psychology (1890, reprint ed.; New York: H. Holt and Co., 1918), vol. 2, pp. 605-06.

2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Paris, 1651), Ch. 2, 4. Full text available on-line at:

3. John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: 1690), Book III. Full text available on-line at


 CEP - Comment - December 14, 2001