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Ethics & the Environment 10.2 (2005) 101-135

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Truth, Knowledge and the Wild World

One ought not to put too much stock in the word 'philosophy'. . . . [T]here are alternative ways of intelligently engaging the world. To construe one's thinking in terms of belief is characteristic of a particular kind of world view and it remains to be seen whether those who share an indigenous world view conceive of experience in such an overtly intellectualized manner.
Leroy N. Meyer and Tony Ramirez (1996, 104)1
Wilderness treats me like a human being.
Tom Birch2

As Holmes Rolston III has said, "A principal characteristic of human life is that it develops into biography. In that sense, humans do not want their values in nature, any more than they want other goods in life, to come seriatim, like beads on a string. . . . Humans want a storied residence in nature where the passage of time integrates past, present, and future in a meaningful career" (Rolston 1988, 351). This is what I had hoped for: a narrative of storied residence in Midwest prairie, lake, and river country, and in the mountains and deserts of Idaho, with the history of the development of an environmental ethic (or ethos) left largely implicit within that larger narrative, leaving readers to reflect as they may on the philosophical dimensions of the journey. To leave traditional philosophical [End Page 101] modes of expression completely behind proved impossible (for now), but it has been for me a worthwhile exercise to locate my reflections on "truth, knowledge, and the wild world" in something of a narrative form. It is the lakes and rivers, prairies, mountains, and deserts that have remained implicit. They have cast their spell, however, on any attempt to impose cultural order on the relationship between truth, knowledge, and the wild world.


Looking back on it, it seems that my entire philosophical career has been implicated—in one way or another, directly and indirectly—in these two questions: "How important is truth to knowledge and epistemology?" and "What is the role of natural environments in the production of knowledge?" Furthest back, at the very origin of my philosophical life, reflections on philosophical knowledge were inevitably posed and thought about in natural environments, particularly in my meditations as I drifted in the early morning mist on the St. Croix River and several Minnesota lakes, especially Cedar Lake. Even now, when I am trying to make my way to a new understanding of some philosophical issue, I walk along the shores of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, or sit by rivers and lakes in Idaho, a place that became my second home after meeting my partner, Fran. Northern White Cedars stand in our yard, front and back; Western Red Cedar holds our house in its embrace.

There is no question in my mind that natural environments are the deepest sources of whatever philosophical understandings I may have come to. In terms of formal studies, however, the question of the role of natural environments in the production of knowledge did not emerge for me until, well into my teaching career, I discovered the newly-emerging field of environmental ethics. It was at that point that the deepest wellspring of my philosophy and my life came together with my professional philosophical interests—in an uneasy balance. Until that time, as I think of it now, my philosophical track through the curious environment of the academy, however well it prepared me to think about central issues in environmental ethics, was mostly marked by a fascination with glittering baubles and gemstones and did not truly touch the soil, water, and atmosphere of my life.

Questions of truth, knowledge, and epistemology took center stage from the beginning of my formal philosophical studies. As an undergraduate [End Page 102] at Berkeley, Thompson Clarke introduced me (in three courses) to the skeptical implications of Ordinary Language Philosophy that had escaped the attention of J. L. Austin and others. This baptism into the rigors of skeptical philosophy left me pretty much convinced, as my partner and...


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