Cartesian self vs. ecological self

Taylor Steelman
Feb 10, 2018 · 10 min read

You know that feeling that you’re inside your body? That your body is this meaty machine that you, some kind of soul-ish thing, control from behind your eyes? For me, and most of the people I know, this feeling is completely normal. It’s there all the time, underlying everything we do. Yet, according to writer Daniel Quinn, this feeling is “the most dangerous thing in existence — more dangerous than all our nuclear armaments, more dangerous than biological warfare, more dangerous than all the pollutants we pump into the air, the water, and the land.”

What makes it so dangerous? To find out, we need to go back four centuries to the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” René Descartes. With him originated our modern notion of mind-body dualism (later called “Cartesian dualism”) in which the mind and body are viewed as two distinct substances — spirit and matter. Of course, this idea was espoused by the church and other philosophers before Descartes; his role was to import it into the burgeoning scientific worldview.

Two other ideas piggybacked on Cartesian dualism, both of which we take for granted today. The first is that of free will. Descartes wrote in his Passions of the Soul that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained.” He argued that all of our decisions, our personalities and behavior, originate within us, in our souls. We are therefore ultimately responsible, morally and otherwise, for ourselves and our actions.

The second idea smuggled in with mind-body dualism is that humans alone possess souls and therefore free will (“human exceptionalism”). In Descartes’ view, “all the motions of animals originate from the corporeal and mechanical principle.” Nonhuman life-forms are merely complex, biochemical machines without consciousness. Within them there is no dualism; humans are the only apertures through which spirit peers out onto the mechanical universe.

So, while the feeling described in the first paragraph seems a given, innate, and necessary human experience, it actually has a very distinct philosophical origin. We were taught to understand ourselves this way.

(It should be noted that a pure “Cartesian self” is a rare bird today; it is, rather, one pole of a spectrum. Most of us attribute subjectivity to some life-forms and acknowledge that the will is not absolutely free. The point is that society as a whole falls much closer to this pole than its opposite, which will be discussed).

From this sense of self, running invisibly in the background like an operating system, Western people designed and built the world we see today. Colonialism, slavery, and capitalism — these are all legacies of the Cartesian self. This is not to say these social configurations necessarily follow from it, but, as it happened, they did.

It is not difficult to see how. If indigenous people are viewed as subhuman or animals, as they often were during colonialism and slavery, it is a natural intellectual move to diminish or altogether remove their subjectivity as conscious beings. This places them outside the sphere of moral reasoning and empathy; they are objects, means to be used rather than ends in themselves.

With regard to capitalism, free will is a central, if understated, assumption. Without it people are not ultimately responsible for themselves and their actions. If this is the case, there is no moral justification for some (or most) people to be at the bottom of a social hierarchy while others enjoy life at the top. The word “deserve” no longer has meaning in reference to retribution and reward, poverty and affluence, imprisonment and celebrity. Yet capitalism stratifies society and justifies itself by placing the onus of social mobility on the metaphysical freedom of the individual.

But are these institutions what make the Cartesian self “the most dangerous thing in existence”? Yes, in part. They are responsible for an unthinkable amount of suffering. But Quinn thinks it goes deeper. The way in which we relate to the rest of the biotic community — plants, nonhuman animals, protists, fungi, and bacteria — is mediated by who we believe ourselves to be in relation to them. The fact that up to 150 species go extinct every day because of human activity, and that 35% of species alive now could be extinct by 2050, reveals an insidious blindspot of the Cartesian self. Whether most of us don’t know or don’t care is irrelevant; either indicates that these life-forms are excluded from our moral accounting. Deep down we still view ourselves as ontologically unique, superior and separate from the rest of the natural world. Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko captures it eloquently:

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and the animals.

They see no life.
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and the rivers are not alive.
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and bear are objects.
They see no life.

They fear.
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

Western civilization, under command of the Cartesian self, is the meteor causing the Sixth Mass Extinction on planet Earth. This makes the Cartesian self not only the most dangerous thing for those species lost, but also for humans. We don’t know how the destruction of local and planetary ecosystems will affect our own life support systems. Millions of people have already died or been made ill because of human-induced climate change. Natural disasters, widespread drought and flooding, disruption of food supplies, the mutation and spread of pathogens, and the wars caused by these events pose an existential risk to the human species.

The worst-case scenario for global warming, albeit extremely unlikely, is if the release of greenhouse gases turns out to be a runaway feedback process. In such an event massive amounts of carbon dioxide would accumulate in the atmosphere and Earth would increasingly resemble Venus.

If the Cartesian self is the most dangerous thing in existence, how do we uproot, disarm, or transcend it?


“We are gradually discovering that we are our world.”

— Joanna Macy

The Cartesian self’s antithesis and antidote is the ecological self.

Although the term was put forth in the philosophical literature by Norwegian thinker Arne Næss in the 1980s, the lived experience of it has been with humanity all along. It can still be found in many indigenous cosmologies around the world.

The pillars of Næss’s self are opposite those of Descartes’s. Whereas the Cartesian self posits an ontological distinction between mind and body, the ecological self views them as interior and exterior aspects of the same process (“monism”). The language of phenomenology is used to describe the first-person perspective from inside the body while that of biology describes the third-person perspective from outside the body.

Because the ecological self understands it is continuous with the rest of the universe, the idea of a will existing beyond the influence of natural processes is untenable. Like everything else in nature it is shaped and reshaped, moment to moment, in relationship to other bodies. Every interaction — whether intense or barely noticed, whether with a landscape or a lover — is transformative in unpredictable ways. Rather than being viewed as a static, “self-made” individual, the ecological self is more like a flowing amalgamation of encounters. Agency, or will, is not concentrated within the self but distributed through a vast web of interrelated processes (“determinism”).

This is where the “ecological self” gets its name. It lives out of a deep awareness of its own interdependence on other beings — not only for bodily sustenance, but also for the contents of consciousness and character.

While the ecological self acknowledges that humans are unique in the natural order (primarily for their intelligence), it does not, like the Cartesian self, place them at the top of a natural hierarchy. Rather it sees that all species are unique because of their relationships to each other, and that each has a right to exist. It respects and emotionally apprehends each being’s interiority, desires, and capacity to suffer.

Does this mean that “all species are equal” in moral terms? Of course not; this is a complicated question. It does mean, however, that we don’t put our interests above those of other species merely by virtue of our humanity. This kind of prejudice — “speciesism,” according to philosopher Peter Singer — is native to the Cartesian self. Like sexism and racism, it uses a physical difference — one’s species — to justify oppression and exploitation. The ecological self sees beyond form and considers others on the basis of their experience.

As it matures, the ecological self expands to regard more of the world as itself. Næss argues, therefore, that it is actually from a place of self-interest that it honors and serves the surrounding environment. Conservation becomes as automatic as self-preservation (“ecocentrism”).

Of course, the ecological conception of self is not only good from an ethical standpoint, but also true from a scientific one. Research in microbiology and ecology increasingly shows that our bodies are literally communities of organisms within communities of organisms. Of the trillions of microorganisms that make them up, 90% are nonhuman. These bacteria help us do everything from digest food to prevent illness. Our gut microbiome may even play a role in producing neurotransmitters, affecting our mental health.

We all know we are what we eat, drink, and breathe. The organisms we eat — from the sea, farm, or forest — are broken down and integrated into our tissues. Water from rain and rivers becomes our blood. Oxygen from plants fills our lungs and is delivered to every cell in our bodies. That which we no longer need is excreted back to the sea, farm, or forest. Water from our bodies returns to the rivers and sky. Exhaled carbon dioxide is recaptured in the leaves of trees. Each of us are like whirlpools in our surrounding ecosystem, constituted by the flow of matter through us. If and when the flow ceases, we die. And just as the boundary between whirlpool and water is conceptually useful but materially arbitrary, so too is the boundary between body and environment.

At its core, then, “the most dangerous thing in existence” is not as dramatic as it sounds. It isn’t some monstrous manifestation of evil. It isn’t something out of a horror movie (though its consequences are horrific). It’s a basic misunderstanding of who we are.

The mirror handed down from Descartes is a funhouse mirror. It distorts our image of ourselves and thereby our relationship to others. So what can we do to see ourselves more clearly?


“We can never have enough of nature.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Because we tend to be and become according to our surrounding environments, the most important thing we can do to cultivate ecological selfhood is create spaces (physical and virtual), times (events and rituals), and incentives (legal and financial) which point in that direction. Examples include environmental justice actions, Earth Day, wilderness therapy, care farming, the architecture of Stefano Boeri, and Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects.

There are also a number of things we can do individually to work on ourselves. Below is a list of seven practices — by no means exhaustive, but somewhere to start.

  • Build relationships with many different kinds of life-forms. Garden, adopt a rescued animal, take care of houseplants, do conservation work, or volunteer on a care farm. Spending time with other species gives us an opportunity to identify with them.
  • Interrogate the Cartesian self. Question the legitimacy of ideas like free will, mind-body dualism, and human exceptionalism. Go as deep into the scientific and philosophical arguments as you can.
  • Practice mindfulness (preferably in the wilderness). Vipassana, yoga, tai chi, forest bathing, kinhin — the more we turn down the internal white noise of our own thoughts, the more we can pay attention to other natural processes within and around us.
  • Read nature writing in nature. The words of Leslie Marmon Silko, Andreas Weber, or Henry David Thoreau enrich the raw experience of nature with poetic insight.
  • Hang out with people who know more than you (and me). Environmental and indigenous activists, conservationists, Master Naturalists — there are a lot of informed people out there who enjoy teaching others.
  • Learn about ecology. The more we understand the science of ecology at all scales, the more conscious we will be of how our behavior affects other life-forms and how they affect us.
  • Get out of the city. Camp. Hike. Ski. Snowboard. Surf. Canoe. Kayak. Climb mountains. Climb trees. Scuba dive. Sail. Spelunk. Fall asleep in a hammock. Just go exploring and see what happens.

It is no wonder that people who regularly do these activities are mentally and physically healthier. To know ourselves better is to serve ourselves better. And when we grow to include the entire planet within ourselves, we will serve it better, too.

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