"An escalating ecological catastrophe is befalling the biosphere in the twenty-first century. The philosophical roots of this catastrophe lie in the deep structural dualism that has characterized the Western tradition. Dualism conceptually divides mind from matter, culture from nature and the human from the animal, thereby giving rise to an exclusively instrumentalist attitude to the natural environment. Science as the engine of modernity is now the chief global vector of dualism and by its means the instrumentalist attitude has spread around the world.
According to the author, this foundational flaw in Western thinking may be traced ultimately to the Greek discovery of philosophia; that is to say, it may be traced to philosophy itself and to the theoretic orientation to which philosophy led. Any escape from dualism thus requires training in an altogether alternative mode of cognition, a strategic and synergistic mode cultivated not via abstract theorizing but by visceral, sensory, agentically engaged practices of responsive attunement to one’s immediate environment. Such practices were the province of pre-agrarian societies that relied on foraging, and hence on intimate attunement to local ecologies, for their livelihood. Vestiges of this earlier pattern of practice were also preserved in the indigenous Chinese tradition of Daoism via a repertory of psychophysical exercises designed to induce attuned responsiveness to environmental cues. First-hand opportunities for responsive engagement with local ecologies must rather be routinely available to people today just as they were to earlier peoples. Societies must reconfigure economic praxis so that human agency, in its most routine daily forms of expression, interacts synergistically with the biosphere rather than imposing its own abstractly preconceived designs upon it. This is required not only because such reconfigured praxis will serve and sustain life on earth at a biological level but also because it is what is needed to induct people themselves into ecological awareness. The book includes instances of such alternative, synergistic modes of praxis – in agriculture, manufacture and architecture. As an emerging super-power whose thought-roots are in strategic as opposed to theoretic modes of cognition, China is in a position to assume world leadership in this connection. The author appeals directly to China to reclaim its Daoist heritage, apply this heritage to the problem of praxis today, and thereby light the way towards forms of civilization more appropriate to our times."
About Freya Mathews
"Freya Mathews is an Australian environmental philosopher whose primary work revolves around ecological metaphysics and panpsychism. Her current special interests include ecological civilization, indigenous (Australian and Chinese) perspectives on "sustainability," and how these viewpoints can be adapted to the context of contemporary global society. Additionally, she engages with panpsychism, critiques the metaphysics of modernity, and explores wildlife ethics and rewilding within the context of the Anthropocene.
Mathews's philosophy adopts a holistic approach to environmental ethics that is grounded in a metaphysical foundation. Particularly, she draws inspiration from Baruch Spinoza's concept of the "ethic of interconnectedness," which regards the features of the natural world as attributes of the same underlying substance. An essential aspect of this philosophical perspective is her advocacy of ontopoetics, defined as meaningful communicative exchanges between the self and the world.
Selected Publications include:
"The Ecological Self," Routledge, London, 1991. Reissued in 1993; paperback edition released in 1994.
"For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism," SUNY Press, Albany, 2003.
"Journey to the Source of the Merri," Ginninderra Press, Canberra, 2003.
"Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture," SUNY Press, Albany, 2005.
"Ardea: a Philosophical Novella," Punctum Books, New York, 2016.
"Without Animals, Life is not Worth Living," Ginninderra Press, Adelaide, 2016.
Her recent book, "The Dao of Civilization: A Letter to China" (Anthem Press, 2023), explores how insights and practices from Daoism can help China become the moral and spiritual leader it can and should become
Interview with Freya Mathews
offered by the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
This episode of Spotlights features Freya Mathews, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Philosophy at Latrobe University, and author of several books, including The Ecological Self (1991, reissued with new intro in 2021), For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism (2003), Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture (2005), and her new book, The Dao of Civilization: a Letter to China(2023). We discuss her personal and professional path toward metaphysics, conservation ethics, and ecological civilization, with special attention to the unique role that Indigenous and Daoist principles can play in contemporary global society. This episode begins with a few verses from a poem, “Let the Mountain be your Temple,” by Freya Matthews.
A Process Appreciation
Freya Mathews is not a process philosopher, as far as I know. Nevertheless, those who learn from her with Whiteheadian eyes appreciate much of what she says. This includes her idea that China has a greater potential for guiding the world, more so than the West. Freya Mathews knows that with the help of philosophy, we can recognize our place in a living cosmos that resonates with scientific viewpoints. Here, I also add that this resonates with the viewpoints advocated by process philosophers and theologians. They too believe that the entire universe is imbued with life or vitality and speak of divinity not as a separate entity outside the cosmos but as the living whole of the cosmos itself, albeit with a life of its own.
In addition, Mathews believes that we carry within us a reflective consciousness and will that enables us to contemplate what we want, feel, and strive to live in a way attuned to this living cosmos. All living beings have inner lives and a will to live with satisfaction; all possess what she calls a conative side, but ours includes this reflective capacity, making it incumbent upon us to align our lives with the principles of the cosmos as we find them embodied in our local biotic communities. This alignment has an emotional aspect. We need to "feel" the essence of the living cosmos. Here too, there is resonance with process philosophy, which, following Whitehead, proposes that "feeling" is at the heart of life. Even thinking is a form of feeling.
How do we attain this sense of feeling? How do we orient our lives around the living cosmos? Mathews emphasizes that we, as modern Western people, can learn from the lifeways of indigenous peoples, with Australian Aborigines serving as her example. They do not segregate a living cosmos from local settings; instead, they find that cosmos in the local settings, revealing principles by which to live — principles of reciprocity, mutuality, a sense of autonomy, the intrinsic value of each living being, and an intuitive sense of the aliveness of all things. The laws are inherent within the local biotic community, and we need to heed them: to incorporate the conativities of all living beings, as best we can, into our own lives, rather than imposing our will upon them. Accommodation is the principle of respectful interaction, making use of the affordances of the more-than-human world in ways that are reciprocal and humble. Accommodation is the way of least resistance.
Mathews identifies a strong connection between this principle of respect and that of Chinese Daoism with its pre-agrarian roots. The Daoist intuitions can aid the Chinese in addressing their ecological crises in ways that surpass Western approaches, cultivating the kind of civilization sorely needed in our time: an Ecological Civilization where people live with respect and care for one another and the living cosmos, rooted in local settings. They can facilitate the adaptation of modernity to the needs of ecology. Wu-wei is also the way of least resistance.
She recognizes that all too often, our metaphysical theories draw us away from responsive attunement to our immediate environment. We become lost in abstract principles — such as "everything is interconnected" and "there is mind in nature." Ironically, the very gift of metaphysics can become its bane.
The solution, it seems to me, is not to abandon philosophical inquiry but to complement it and ground it in first-hand opportunities for sensory engagement. As the description of her book puts it: "First-hand opportunities for responsive engagement with local ecologies must be routinely available to people today, just as they were to earlier peoples. Societies must reconfigure economic praxis so that human agency, in its most routine daily forms of expression, interacts synergistically with the biosphere rather than imposing its own abstractly preconceived designs upon it. This is required not only because such reconfigured praxis will serve and sustain life on earth at a biological level, but also because it is what is needed to inculcate people themselves into ecological awareness. The book includes instances of such alternative, synergistic modes of praxis – in agriculture, manufacturing, and architecture." In the world of process philosophy, we sometimes fall into the trap of bifurcating theory and practice, thinking that a metaphysics that invites a recognition of the living universe precedes and supplies a foundation for practice. Not so, says Mathews. The needed metaphysics can emerge from practice: that is, from felt relations with local ecologies, as found in manufacturing, architecture, and farming. Metaphysics can emerge from hands in the soil and hearts attuned to local wisdom, from which, in many ways, the principles by which we live can emerge. Moreover, it is the Chinese traditions of Daoism, with their emphasis on psychophysical exercises as part of daily life, that can bring us back to our senses, literally and spiritually. To this, process philosophers rightly say "Yes."