Monday, May 21, 2012

Erich Fromm #3C: Alienation, animals, and atheism

As I hinted at in the previous post, writing about Fromm’s view of alienation from other living beings and the means of overcoming it is somewhat challenging. First, like Marx, he just didn’t talk about this aspect of alienation (from other animals and the rest of the natural world) that often. While he generally included it when listing the many ways we’re alienated in industrial-capitalist society, his focus was overwhelmingly on relationships amongst humans ourselves.

Second, when he did talk about developing new relationships in this sphere, he often fell into patterns of thought that were regressive and inconsistent with his broader visionary perspective. In this sense, he was a product of his time, place, social position, and intellectual influences. He often uncritically followed Marx in seeing nonhuman nature as simply the raw material for human subsistence and creative and technological expression, and other thinkers in viewing our animal nature as something to be transcended and nature as a thing to be mastered. These views are similar to his ideas about the need to separate from and transcend the relationship with our mothers, and these arguments are not unrelated. In fact, he often argued that (“primitive”) cultures emphasizing “mother earth” or a deep connection with other animal species were at a lower level of human development.

These problems stem, I think, from his background in a patriarchal society and his intellectual milieu. The beliefs that men needed to separate from, transcend, define themselves against, and in some sense “master,” nature and all that deemed feminine in general are all related and symptomatic of his formation in a patriarchal culture. They’re also wholly incongruous with his larger vision for overcoming alienation: these gendered ideas are a combination of nonrelationships and relationships of domination and exploitation, which Fromm otherwise sees as unhealthy and counterproductive, and completely ignore nonhuman consciousness and interests.

Third, aside from these lazy formulations, his proposals for rebuilding our connections with nature were rather shapeless. (I haven’t yet read all of his books, and there are hints in his later work that he was influenced by the ecology movement, so I might just be unaware of more concrete proposals in this area. If anyone knows of writings of his specifically on this subject, please let me know.) Interestingly, it was Fromm who introduced the useful concept of biophilia, an active love of and commitment to life, the positive personal and political attitude he championed in opposition to harmful and unhealthy necrophilous tendencies. But in terms of the form of our relationships with the nonhuman world, biophilia appears more a negation of destructiveness than a concrete set of positive practices. Biophilic ethics, for example, is vague: “Good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces” (AoHd, p. 406).

Moreover, Fromm looks to religious traditions, and particularly to mysticism, for ideas about recovering our relationships with other life. Though frequently raised, the how of mystical practice isn’t fleshed out to at all the same extent as the practice of concrete human-human relationships. Left vague (and, again, I may well be ignorant of some of his work on the subject), it seems inconsistent with both his recommendations for human relationships and science, which are grounded in real action in engagement with other beings.

Despite these challenges, we can build on Fromm’s insights in thinking about overcoming human-nonhuman alienation for two reasons. First, his discussion of the ideal practice of science does offer some important concrete suggestions to counter the distortions rooted in the prejudices of his time and place. Second, unalienated scientific practices can be appreciated as just a subset of the loving practices Fromm advocates. Although his discussion of loving relationships is extremely human-centric, the form of the relationships Fromm describes is applicable to a great extent to our relationships with nonhumans. Recognizing this, we can give some substance to the “biophilic imperative.” I’m confident that he would approve.

Science: an unalienated relationship

Fromm was a critic of the character and social role of the science of his day, including, as I discussed in an earlier post, of psychiatry and the social sciences. He challenged what he considered the worship (including the vicarious, nationalistic worship) of an alienated practice and technology not grounded in humanistic values. Ironically, it’s here in the criticisms of the modern worship of technology and alienated research, in his distinction between alienated intelligence and unalienated reason, that we find the vision for an unalienated scientific relationship with other natural beings that was consistent with and rooted in his understanding of alienation.

Crucially, he appreciated the practice of science as a form of relating to the world, in exactly the same way we relate to other human beings. (As defined by Fromm, the scientific attitude and practice could extend well beyond the “official,” institutional sphere of science and out into everyday life.) Viewed in this way, science could be understood as an unalienated means of relating like any other, with equivalent consequences for the mental health and human development of those engaging in it.

For example, Fromm believed an unalienated scientific relationship was necessary to the development of reason. Just as he saw sentimentality as alienated emotion (“feeling under the condition of unrelatedness,…the feeling flows over, but it is empty because there is a need to feel, but nothing the feeling is related to,” PoN, KL 891), so, he argued, did reason suffer from the lack of genuine engagement:

Something similar happens to our reason, or to our thought processes, if we are not related to what we think about. To put it differently: if we are not concerned, then all that is left of our thought processes is intelligence. By intelligence, I mean an ability to manipulate concepts, but not to penetrate through the surface to the essence of things, to manipulate rather than to understand. This faculty of understanding, one might call reason, in contradistinction to manipulating intelligence. Reason indeed operates only if we are related to what we think about.” (PoN KL 891-6, emphasis added)

Intelligence in Fromm’s sense is alienated reason. Scientific practice, broadly defined, is an unalienated relationship that makes reason possible. We achieve an unalienated connection with the world through humble scientific objectivity:

All this is connected with our old concept of science. The scientific attitude is indeed one of the great achievements of the last few hundred years. What was this scientific attitude? It was an attitude of objectivity. It was a human attitude in which one had humility, in which one had the strength to look at the world objectively. That is to say, as it is and not distort it by our own wishes and fears and imagination. It was a human attitude, where one had the courage to see and examine whether the data that we gathered confirmed our idea or disproved it, and whether one had the courage to change a theory if the data showed that they had not proved it. That was the essence of scientific thinking.” (PoN KL 900-909, emphasis added)

Here, in his discussion of science, Fromm begins to overcome the limitations of Marx’s ideas concerning our alienation from the rest of the natural world. Nature, in this view, isn’t reduced to the raw material for our use or self-expression, and other living beings aren’t deprived of their own reality. Scientific objectivity respects other living beings on their own independent terms.

Science isn’t the only such unalienated relationship with the natural world, but we can use it as a model. In these relationships, embodied in action, we have to accept and try to respect and understand other natural entities as independently existing rather than imposing our wishes and emotions on them or viewing them as abstractions or commodities. In the process, we develop our knowledge, our capacity for reason and emotion, and ourselves. It’s not about whether the moment is pleasant or difficult at the superficial level we’re used to talking about; what’s important is that the relationship with the world that we establish through the practice of science is unalienated. So scientific objectivity (or, better yet, a broad intersubjectivity) isn’t just necessary to the development of our understanding of the world but is ethically sound and conducive to mental health.

And science and other similar relationships with the nonhuman world are, of course, just a subset of unalienated loving relationships. As noted above, the loving relationships Fromm focused on were those between and among humans. But the form of these relationships – ideally, as he describes in The Art of Loving, characterized by care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge - is reasonably, and necessarily, extended to scientific and other relationships with the nonhuman world.

While Fromm didn’t much explicitly connect the science and love aspects, the link comes through in his separate discussions of each, and is especially apparent in his choice of people to single out for admiration. He often mentions, for example, Albert Einstein, among other leading 20th-century physicists,* as a model. In his view, Einstein – a proponent of vegetarianism, by the way – approached the natural world with a laudable humanistic, unalienated, loving attitude. He saw Einstein’s scientific work as part of, and even formative of, his humanism.

Probably the person who most embodied Fromm’s vision of an unalienated, loving relationship with other living beings was Rachel Carson. I don’t know if they knew of each other, but she shared several of Fromm’s critiques and her work expressed his ideas in action. From "Rachel Carson's Environmental Ethics" (oddly unsigned):

[Carson] emphasized the complementarity in the great majority of cases of the three basic goals of protecting human health, preserving non-human life, and promoting human flourishing….

As philosophers, we are inclined to ask: what are the 'foundations' of Rachel Carson's environmental ethics? Otherwise put: how does she justify her three main evaluative premises (or her two controversial ones, concern for human health presumably needing no justification)?...Perhaps she believed that by implying such general ethical principles as "cause no unnecessary suffering" or "preserve opportunities for human knowledge and experience", she was resting on ethical ultimates which were beyond justification.

…Ultimately, I think, her ethical foundation is experiential. Aesthetic, intellectual, sensual, imaginative, personal experience grounds ethical judgments and action. In the main, Carson's writings are concerned to facilitate such experiences, rather than to argue for particular ethical positions. They certainly do not argue for particular religious beliefs.

…Like the failure to prevent unnecessary suffering, the failure to understand and appreciate nature lessened our stature as human beings.

…Carson never doubted that increased knowledge was more precious than increased material wealth, or that a more widespread knowledge of nature would motivate people to protect it. And knowledge, for her, was not simply learned, but lived and experienced, engaging and developing the senses and emotions as well as the mind, our imaginations as much as our analytic abilities.

…Carson's ethics were non-anthropocentric: she recognized the moral considerability of non-human beings. But Carson's work reminds us that non-anthropocentrism is both an ethical position and an intellectual task, and the latter demands as much from us as the former. In particular, it demands repeated attention to the non-human world: the setting aside of our works and purposes and a concentration on nature’s own stories and realities. [emphasis added]

Carson’s message, the author argues, was that a full “physical and intellectual engagement with the natural world” was foundational both to a humanistic ethics and to our own flourishing. In her actions, we see Fromm’s ideas come to life.

In my next post, I’ll tie this all together and talk about the alienation of animal consumption and faith in light of these ideas.

*Many physicists were, like Fromm, active in SANE.

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