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  • Epistemology and Environmental Philosophy:The Epistemic Significance of Place
  • Christopher J. Preston (bio)


Environmental philosophy began its life as a series of investigations into the question of whether an ethic of the environment was necessary and possible. A good deal of interesting ink was spilled in this quest. But over time a vigorous community of inquirers has created a territory much more broad. Questions of politics and metaphysics, meta-ethics and aesthetics are now staples of the discipline. The philosophies of science and technology, of biology and ecology, each now contain questions that belong to environmental philosophy. Continental thought in general and phenomenology in particular have both come to include major thinkers happy to call themselves environmental philosophers.

Despite the significant current breadth of the field, there still remain a few philosophers that dismiss environmental philosophy. They do this because they think that the real business of philosophy resides far away from environmental concerns in Platonic and Cartesian questions about [End Page 1] knowledge, truth, and mind. This collection is an attempt to draw the attention of those few remaining skeptics by bringing the concerns of environmental philosophers into direct contact with epistemology and its cognates. Each of the following articles addresses relationships between knowledge, truth, and mind and the physical environments from which those central features of human life emerge. The physical environments that are the concerns of these authors include the flesh and blood physiologies, the rock and earth geographies, and the life and death ecologies out of which all knowledge claims ultimately emerge. These authors endeavor to contextualize epistemology relative to the material environments from which it issues. This task of environmentally contextualizing the life of the mind is one I have termed elsewhere the grounding of knowledge (Preston 2003).

The articles that follow draw together threads that the careful observer might have already noticed in several areas of philosophy. This observer might have seen feminist epistemologists grounding knowledge not only in social contexts that include gender, race, and class, but also in physical contexts that include bodies and geographies (Haraway 1988, Harding 1998). She might have noticed laboratory theorists grounding scientific theories among the physical realities of the lab (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Knorr-Cetina 1992). She might also have read the work of philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists exploring how the mind seems often to rely upon embodied experience in external environments in the work it does (Johnson 1987, Clark 1997). She might have been captured by the texts of phenomenologists reporting how people perceive and experience from enfleshed and embedded locations (Casey 1993, Abram 1996). She would also, no doubt, be familiar with environmental philosophers admiring how Native American epistemologies take geography seriously, a process Sioux Indian Vine Deloria has called "thinking from a spatial point of view" (Deloria 1994). She might even have had her attention drawn to an area of perceptual studies known as ecological psychology promoting the radical idea that inner processes of perception are in fact more fruitfully studied by focusing on outer considerations such as animacy and environmental structure (Gibson 1979, Reed 1996). These quite radical departures from the traditional picture together suggest that what was previously thought to be located exclusively in the deep recesses of the human mind is in reality intricately woven into a number of external and environmental factors. [End Page 2] Environments can no longer be looked at as just incidentally relevant to epistemology. They are not just the scenes in which the making of a knowledge claim happens to take place. Physical environments can be in subtle but important ways partly constitutive of those claims.

The grounding of knowledge that this collection proposes holds forth a number of promises. It promises, for example, to make epistemology more earth-bound and attentive to the ecologies in which it takes place. It promises to illuminate how the human mind and its activities do not so much distance us from the rest of nonhuman nature as demonstrate our connection with it through its very workings. Grounding knowledge also suggests a corrective to the disembodied epistemologies of Platonists and their heirs while simultaneously supplying another way for environmental philosophy to broaden its scope beyond ethics...


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