Is Freya Mathews Ontopoetics the Answer to Arne Naess’s Ecological Self?
Environmental philosophers (or ecophilosophers) like Arne Naess and Freya Mathews have argued that in order to change our current disconnected from nature and anthropocentric trajectory, we need to resist the individualism and atomisation of modernity and instead embrace an ‘ecological’ self. Freya Mathews has written about the ecological self in great detail since Naess brought the term into existence though his eco-philosophy (or ecosophy), and over the past 20 years Mathews exploration has led to a concept known as ‘ontopoetics’ which could potentially be a pathway, or practice and answer to the ecological self that Neass originally provided.
This essay, originally presented as a summative essay in my master’s degree program, was an investigations into this exploration of ontopoetics as the potential answer to engaging with this ecological self. This work was done partially through a scholarly personal narrative, which will be the italicized portions of this essay. I also qualitatively navigated this journey leaning into political ecology while examining key contributions to these concepts, theories, and the philosophical inquiry of what an ecological self might be, and how ontopoetics could potentially provide access for people beyond just academia. This subject brings up further questions for me as well. Specifically, how relevant, important, and accessible is it for those outside of academia to explore these relationships and theories? Particularly those struggling to put food on the table or have a roof over their head. Or for the millions suffering from systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, or xenophobia. I also wonder if connecting with the ecological self can only be accessed through a regular practices.
A great challenge and task I did my best to also hold on to throughout this journey was the question; could capitalism, settler colonialism, and our global economic systems rationalize functioning the way they have and do if embracing an ecological self became a common practice? In my last essay, Could we Learn to be an Animist Society? (Culhane, 2021) I briefly explored similar ecological and political questions while focusing on animism. Combined with this exploration into the ecological self, this all eventually greatly informed my thesis dissertation project, the three-part podcast Engaged With Ecology. For now, I shall attempt to confine the exploration so as to better illuminate the ecological self, ontopoetics, and my relationship with them.
These words are being written on what is a lovely, late summer day. Autumn is in the air and a light cool breeze is carrying the sounds of robins, squirrels, and buzzing insects into this space presently. It is comfortable and I am feeling the support of a full belly and the welcome hydration from this clean, fresh water in the cup by my side. Knowing there is a sense of stability with this roof over my head and a warm bed here for me tonight fills me with gratitude. On this in breath I’m further taking a moment to reflect on the position of privilege I’m living with as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied male human being. Here in the countryside of Devon, England, the world around me appears to be very close to what I imagine is an idealised, romanticised, Westernised (and White) nearly perfect version of reality. I’ve recently concluded the taught portion of this masters programme, which fits within the boundaries of the environmental humanities, in a cohort of people from various parts of the world, in humble recognition that we are among a tiny fraction of the human population that is able to devote some of our time and energy to such pursuits. It is from this place of acknowledgment that I shall commence this exploration.
Back in the summer of 1987, Arne Neass poured out a heaping dose of rather confusing, though provocative thoughts and ideas that circled around this idea and coinage of the term ‘ecological self’. This is how it was introduced:
Traditionally the maturity of self has been considered to develop through three stages, from ego to social self, comprising the ego, and from there to the metaphysical self, comprising the social self. But nature is then largely left out in the conception of this process. Our home, our immediate environment, where we belong as children, and the identification with human living beings, are largely ignored. I therefore tentatively introduce, perhaps for the first time ever, a concept of ecological self. We may be said to be in, of and for Nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constitutive relations (Neass 1987, p. 35).
It would appear Neass is pointing towards a way of being that reconnects our experience as humans in a relational way and as John Seed points out in his review of the ecological self, “Ideas only engage one part of our mind in cognition. We also need ecological feelings and actions as well as ideas to nurture a maturing ecological identity in a place” (Seed 2006, p. 98). Seed further elaborates on Naess’ contribution to both deep ecology and this pursuit of an ecological self in sharing how the development of “The Council of All Beings” (co-created by Seed, Naess, Joanna Macy, and Pat Flemming) is a set of experiential deep ecology processes, ceremonies and rituals that help us to expand our identification in the way that Naess describes. “Community therapy to develop deep awareness of our ecological self” is a good way of thinking about this work. (Seed 2006, p. 99) I found one more piece of Seeds reflection very insightful that speaks to an action or a practice that can bring about our ecological self and notes this is not just a current dilemma, he notes, “that the tendency to disconnect from the natural world might not be just a modern phenomenon as I had assumed. The fact that indigenous people invariably practice such ceremonies, speaks of the human tendency to forget who we really are and wander off into socially constructed identities. Why else would we need to regularly and powerfully remind ourselves that we are part of the web of life? (Seed 2006, p 100). In this recognition it seems clear that there is a practice, process, or even set of rituals and/or ceremonies that may be needed in order to develop an ongoing connection with an individual and collective ecological self.
I feel it important to elaborate on something in relation to indigenous practices and beliefs here that came to my attention when first reading Naess’ article where he introduces the concept of an ecological self, he relates a case study and shares that, “The Lapps of Arctic Norway have been hurt by interference with a river for the purpose of hydroelectricity. In court, accused of illegal demonstration at the river, one Lapp said that the part of the river in question was ‘part of himself’. This kind of spontaneous answer is not uncommon among people. They have not heard about the philosophy of the wider and deeper self, but they talk spontaneously as if they had” (Naess 1987, p. 37). This statement feels presumptuous and problematic in negating that perhaps the Lapps people already have a cosmology and ontological notion similar to his term the ecological self. To say it came out spontaneously does not sit well with me. While I do not know anything of the Lapps of Arctic Norway beyond what Naess provided here, I have studied and been in relationships with people in the United States (from various indigenous sovereign nations within it), and specifically what comes to mind is the Lakota and their words ‘Wankan Tanka’, which translates essentially to ‘great spirit’, and ‘Mitakuye Oyasin’, which has been translated as ‘we are all related’ or ‘all my relations’. And as Justin de Leon notes in Lakota Experiences of (in) security Cosmology and Ontological Security, “This complete unity of all reality is represented in how the Lakota view Wankan Tanka. The Lakota traditionally internalize the presence of the celestial in their everyday lives, causing them to revere and treat all matters of life as sacred…This wholeness is central to Lakota life – that reality is bound by a sacred reciprocity, a balance achieved through a series of interrelationships. Being one with the universe leads to harmony and security” (de Leon 2018, p.40f). These two expressions and beliefs combined feel quite close to what Naess is pointing to with the idea of a wider and deeper, or ecological self. I bring this in as an acknowledgment that settler colonialism and modern Western culture and academia proposing notions like an ecological self as a new concept is questionable. I may be missing the nuances and differences of what Naess proposes with an ecological self and what Wankan Tanka and Mitakuye Oyasin represent but I feel further inclined to share one more excerpt from de Leon which again notes their similarities:
Cosmology creates the conceptual and ethical scaffolding in which the Lakota process and react to daily life. The worldviews represented in Lakota experiences of security are all linked to cosmic, stellar theology – an identifiable pre-given essence. For example, mitakuye oyasin is based upon the belief that all comes from the same source, the same cosmic energy – the Nagila. This, in turn, is informed by Lakota cosmology of unity and coherence between the stellar and the earthly. Cosmology dictates the practical values and assumptions that shape how life is lived and how emotions and security are understood in the first place. “Mitakuye oyasin is in no way regarded as a normative proposition, but as a statement of simple fact whose falsity is so completely unthinkable that it may rightly be regarded as an aspect of tra- ditional Lakota common sense,” asserts Beier (2003, 104). (de Leon 2018, p.42)
What is referred to here as traditional Lakota common sense in comparison to how Naess describes one of the Lapps of Arctic Norway describing the river as a part of himself as a spontaneous answer is unfortunate, disrespectful, and sadly, one of the ways we in the West have contributed to the erasure or invalidation of pre-colonial peoples and cultures. If we loop back around to Naess’ original introduction to the term ecological self, and bring in J. Baird Callicot’s Note’s on ‘Self-realization’ paper, I see a close comparison in Mitakuye oyasin, Wankan Tanka, and the ecological self, as Callicot describes:
What is an ecological approach to being in the world? In the context of ‘The Shallow and the Deep’ article Self-realization is a relational conception of the self and, more importantly, an experience of oneself in relational terms. One is and one experiences oneself to be a ‘knot in the biospherical net of intrinsic relations.’ Or better: as a node or nexus in a skein of internal socio-environmental relations. One experiences ‘the beauty and complexity of nature [as] continuous with [one]sel[f].’ (Callicott 2017, p. 239)
In the exploration of how to access this ecological self, I will bring in the research of António Carvalho who explored meditation, affect, and ecosphy’s place in connecting with an ecological self, noting:
“The development of a new somatic mode of attention rescues practitioners from the endless cycle of mind wandering, resulting in an increasing awareness of sensations. This attunement to embodied experience is often described by resorting to natural images and metaphors. The meditative body is progressively porous to the sensate and the more-than-human. As Thrift (2000, 49) suggests, contemplative practices ‘expand the bio-political domain’ and indicate that the world has not been ‘dis- enchanted’: ‘(…) the mystical qualities of the world remain in place. Assured by a whole series of body practices, some old and some new, these practices have produced an expansion of awareness of present time’ (Thrift 2000, 35). Meditative practices of the self bring forth vitalist forms of affect, turning participants porous to sensations and energies (Carvalho 2017, p. 9)
Recognising the ecological self is an action, a state of motion and fluidity, in concert with and in relation to other aspects of our combined, shared ecology. This points similarly to the work of Michel Foucault and the philosophy of a technology of the self where he calls upon us to take care of the self, basing some of this methodology from a neoplatonic curriculum. He states that, “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (Foucault, 1982). Taking account of this, while not being explicitly related to ecological self exploration, we can see how there are many approaches to even beginning to make sense of what a ‘self’ is.
Colin Campbell provides a different notion of self and an ecological self, he speaks to the ‘pervious self’ and this idea that porosity is not a foregone conclusion but rather an ongoing process where we actively allow the ‘other’ in. That we can be a “self of kinship”(Campbell, 2021). In a lecture he gave our cohort he spoke to the untangling we must do with such narratives as referring to parts of nature as ‘resources’ which he proclaimed is one of the ultimate displacements from our inextricably connected relationship with and as a part of nature. I like how he put it, “We are nature, naturing”. By objectifying nature as an ‘other’ we become complicit and perpetuate the current collective narrative. We have turned life forces other than humans into commodities. In addition to this, he pointed to how at the core of our current mythic narrative there is this ‘affect ambient anxiety’ where we value ourselves through a lens of productivity, combined with so many of us living largely in a world with too much artificial light, drivin by stimulation, this is detrimentally shaping our behaviours, actions, and reality. We must deconstruct ourselves from the narrative, this ideology, and these beliefs. (Campbell, 2021)
This leads me into what Donald Rothberg illuminates in the Crisis of Modernity and the Emergence of Socially engaged Spirituality, providing a similar perspective to what Campbell spoke to when he points out that, “The idea of a “socially engaged” spirituality is that of developing spiritual qualities or virtues in the context of full involvement in social, political, and communal life. To embody such a spirituality is to approach and express “spirit,” the “sacred,” or “God,” not through separation from the “world,” from the spheres of family, but in the midst of embeddedness and activity in these spheres” (Rothberg 1993, p. 105).
And here we are finally brought around to Freya Mathews’ wonderful contributions to this subject. In her book The Ecological Self, she starts early with this description of where modern western thought has come to:
Such, at any rate, has been the presupposition of our thinking, of western thought in general, and of our philosophy in particular: that the world is made up of a plurality of discrete individual substances: the world has been viewed, since classical times, as an array of individual objects which are logically mutually independent but bound in a web of causal ties. That this individualistic bias is merely a contingency of our culture is evidenced by the fact that in many human cultures it has been transcended: ideological, or perhaps experiential, factors have inclined these cultures to a flow view of things—the familiar eastern view of the world as a unity in which the appearances of plurality and diversity are no more than ripples on the surface of an oceanic continuum. (Mathews 1991, p. 1)
And so Mathews’ work continued developing eventually into this realm of ontopoetics, where she presents the idea of accessing an ecological self through an enchanting process which is the closest form of describing our relationship with the natural world in magical terms. Or as Mathews puts it, ontopoetics, “seeks to call forth the communicative potential of reality, devising forms of address conducive to communicative encounter. One form such address might take is the time-honored one, prominent in many religious and spiritual traditions, of invocation. To invoke the world is to ask it to manifest its self-meanings to us” (Matthews 2017, p. 224). There is an importance placed on ontopoetics as an ongoing practice. Mathews impresses on us that, “To engage in ontopoetics it is necessary first to open one’s mind to the possibility that reality is not only relational in its structure, in an ecological sense, but also potentially communicative and responsive to us” (Matthews 2017, p. 223f). Further noting “Each time the world arranges itself with poetic intent, each time it manifests in the poetic image of our invocation, it is as if it presents itself to us for the very first time” (Matthews 2017, p. 225).
What Mathews does in delivering these exciting ideas around ontopoetics, it seems reasonable to conclude that this could in fact provide a pathway to access one’s own greater ecological self, individually, and in larger group contexts. Mathews shares that onopoetics and the “Invocation in the present sense may be practiced privately or collectively. Contemporary examples of collective invocational practices include those involved in bioregional rituals—ceremonies or festivals enacted to celebrate place or landscape or local ecologies” (Matthews 2017, p. 225).
In my own experiences throughout my life I have practiced varying degrees of this theory while admittedly being unaware of what the philosophical terms/concepts were. By this I mean to say much like with animism, I practiced forms of it throughout my life and it wasn’t until deep personal and academic explorations more recently that I was able to learn what contributions to these ideas and theories there were. Similarly, in just this past term, I created a ritual, which I didn’t recognise as such until recently, of going to the River Dart every day to do what is called around these parts as a ‘wild swim’, it was a daily practice that involved the same rhythms and routines and while I wasn’t quite thinking of it as such, I was creating ontopoetic invocations as well. And nature and the world around me was indeed responding through numerous interactions with the river itself, the trees nearby, and various birds and animals as well. In my recent research I was pleased to find others in academia actually exploring ontopoetics and connecting with rivers through an article entitled: River Connections…Voicing Rivers through Ontopoetics: A Co-operative Inquiry (Kurio and Reason, 2021), I was so excited in fact that I reached out to one of the lead authors, Jacqueline Kurio and am now in communication with them about more of their research. I will be continuing that communication and hope to find ways to potentially collaborate as well, or at the very least, have it inform my own explorations with the River Dart and our ontopoetic journey together.
In this exploration of the ecological self, as introduced by Arne Naess, I have attempted to elaborate on and clarify to some degree this notion and theory through various other scholars and philosophers and then bring the focus onto ontopoetics brought forth by Freya Mathews as the potential answer to accessing this ecological self. I feel these ideas require a great deal more elaboration and exploration to be better understood and accessible for an average reader, I personally am still working to understand and comprehend the ethics and philosophy that surrounds this subject. Especially when it comes to non-Western thought and the idea that other cultures and peoples have quite likely already deeply explored these concepts and have been practicing them since time immemorial. I conclude with the surrendering thought that there is still a great deal of work for me to do in this exploration. As much as I can grasp what the ecological self is, and ontopoetics as a pathway and practice for accessing it goes, I am in support of it and grateful for the contributions all have put forth thus far.
Callicott, J.B. (2017). Notes on “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World.” Worldviews, 21(3), pp.235–250.
Culhane, J. (2021). Could We Learn To Be An Animist Society? Academic Essay. 1-10
de Leon, J. (2018). Lakota experiences of (In)security: cosmology and ontological security. International Feminist Journal of Politics, pp.1–30.
Campbell, C. (2021). The Southern African Tradition. Schumacher College, Lecture.
Carvalho, A. (2017). Ecologies of the self in practice – meditation, affect and ecosophy, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography
Kurio, J. and Reason, P. (2021). Voicing Rivers through ontopoetics: A co‐operative inquiry. River Research and Applications.
Michel Foucault, Info. (1982). Technologies of the Self: Lectures at University of Vermont in October 1982. [online] Available at: https://www.foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en/
Mathews, F. (2017). “Come with Old Khayyam and Leave the Wise to Talk.” Worldviews, 21(3), pp.218–234.
Mathews, F. (1991) Ecological Self. S.L.:Routledge
Naess, A. (1987). ‘Self-realization: an ecological approach to being in the world.’ The Trumpeter 4(3): pp.35-42.
Rothberg, D. (1993). ‘The crisis of modernity and the emergence of socially engaged spirituality.’ ReVision 15(3): 105-114
Seed, J. (2006). ‘The Ecological Self.’ The Trumpeter 22(2): 96-102.