Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts
Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

1.2 A framing paradox: experiencing nature with cognitive tools

Whilst language tools are helpful in conveying meaning in conversation amongst humans, establishing what matters in ‘conversation’ between human and non-human nature, or amongst non-human living entities, requires different cognitive tools. Cognition refers to the way in which external information from the environment is processed. As sentient beings, humans and some other animals are able to experience wellbeing and suffering. In the next reading, Ronald Moore examines how we engage with, and bring to the foreground, matters of interest regarding nature in terms of aesthetic experiences, perhaps the most highly developed constituent of sentience.

The paradox referred to in the title of the reading is fairly straightforward: ‘On the one hand, frames seem to be an indispensable condition for the aesthetic experience of anything whatsoever, and on the other hand the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments seems to require the dissolving or penetrating of boundaries of all sorts’ (Moore, 2006, p. 249). Aesthetic values are clearly human-centred; that is, they are subjective rather than objective. Moore suggests that the apparent paradox has generated a schism amongst philosophers, with many claiming that any attempt at framing the environment devalues it because its aesthetic value relates to its essentially frameless quality.

Activity 2 The framing paradox

Read ‘The framing paradox’ by Ronald Moore (2006).

‘The framing paradox’ and the poem ‘O sweet spontaneous’ both hint at the variety of ways in which we engage with environmental responsibility, and the purposes of our engagement. They also invoke a tension between the desire to fully appreciate nature and the desire to make best use of it.

A key point in Moore's argument rests on the idea that every aesthetic experience of nature is actually framed (2006, p. 263):

Whether one is standing outside the cabin looking at the vast panorama or standing within it looking through the window, one is looking at what is necessarily only a selection from the great inventory of natural phenomena. It obviously follows that nature as a whole cannot be appreciated aesthetically, and that we are therefore stuck with finding beauty, sublimity, etc., in parts of nature rather than in a limitless and therefore insensible whole. To this plain fact of limitation, we may add the fact that our limited capacities of attention and comprehension, let alone culturally inculcated limitations on what we may become aware of, inevitably circumscribe our ability to experience natural phenomena.

Framing might be considered as the means by which we as humans converse with nature. In conversation, we attend to someone. Moore suggests that framing has an aesthetic value through focusing our attention on selected experiences. However, the attention that we give to nature through framing is not just an aesthetic experience; it might also be considered as an important language through which to enact responsibility – to perpetuate a conversation. Framing as an aesthetic device contributes to the quality of conversation. The aesthetic value generated could be seen as fulfilling a purpose, one that might loosely be described in terms of providing attention, and therefore respect, to nature (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1 Paying attention to nature: members of the public look at exhibits in a natural history museum

In constructing ‘nature’ from Nature, what we select as constituting what matters is determined by both biological and cultural factors. Two examples of this are given in Boxes 3 and 4. Box 3 briefly describes framing as a biological function, while Box 4 explains it as a more cultural and political function. Each explanation in its own way signals the importance of understanding the frameworks used in raising issues of what matters.

Box 3 Framing as a biological cognitive device

The Santiago theory of cognition (Maturana and Varela, 1987) defines cognition as the structural coupling between a perceiving agent and its environment. As Niels Röling describes it, the starting point is perception – but perception driven by some notion of a purposeful activity, as demonstrated by Maturana and Varela's example of a frog looking at a fly (Röling, 2003, p. 82):

There is no way that the fly can be ‘objectively ’ projected. But the presence of a fly can trigger change in the central nervous system of the frog. The frog does not bring forth the fly, but a fly … [but not just] any fly (as pure relativists would have us believe). It brings forth a fly the frog can catch and eat.

The frog brings forth a fly for the purpose of nutrition. Cognition appears to be driven by internal devices of ‘purpose’. Purpose provides the shaping device that determines what we attend to. Framing in this basic biological sense is not just a human endeavour, but one shared by all sentient beings.

John Dewey, the US educationalist, philosopher of aesthetics and exponent of the philosophical school of pragmatism who is referred to by Ronald Moore in the final paragraph of the reading in Activity 2, makes a similar claim regarding attentiveness in relation to human perceptions. Dewey makes the distinction between simple recognition and perception. David Granger (2006, p. 122) describes Dewey's distinction in terms of an artistic act:

In moving beyond the point of simple recognition, [perception] requires that we attend … It cannot happen without a creative act of reconstructive doing such that past relations and meanings are to some degree remade – an activity that is greatly facilitated by a mindful, feeling intellect.

Ideological constructs provide a further level of purpose in framing, moving from being aesthetically attentive towards being more intentional (Box 4).

Box 4 Framing as an ideological device

Ecologism, as understood by Mark Smith (1998), is a mode of thinking underpinning a sense of ecological citizenship. It provides two distinctive features of ecological thought: the obligation to future generations, and the relationship between humans and animals. The following quotations from Dobson and Humphrey discuss the idea of ecologism as an ideology.

I have claimed that ecologism is a new political ideology, worthy of attention in the new millennium alongside other more familiar ones such as liberalism, conservatism and socialism.

(Dobson, 2000, p. 163)

For Michael Freeden [1996], whilst it makes sense to treat Green political thought as an ideology, it is a ‘thin’ ideology – a constellation of ideas clustered around just a few core concepts, which lacks the ideational complexity of a ‘full’ ideology.

On Freeden's morphological understanding all political thinking takes place in the form of structured arrangements of political concepts, and these structures are what constitute ‘ideology ’.

Neither Freeden's nor Dobson's conception of ideology presumes ideological thinking is exceptionally dogmatic, nor do their approaches probe the epistemological questions of truth and falsehood addressed in the Marxist tradition. Instead they seek to map and explain particular ideological constellations of conceptual structures. … [T]he most important facet of ideological morphology: the absence of absolute boundaries which separate the features of ideological systems.

(Humphrey, 2001, pp. 3, 6)

Ilan Kapoor (2005) looks at frameworks as ideological constructs. According to Kapoor, ‘participatory development’ as an official guide to development intervention might be considered as an ideology that masks real-world problems. Drawing particularly on the psychoanalytical work of Slavoj Žižek, and citing the definition of ideology as a ‘lie which pretends to be taken seriously’ (p. 1207), Kapoor distinguishes between reality and the Real (p. 1205):

Reality is what we (mistakenly) take to be wholeness or harmony, while the Real denotes the impossibility of wholeness … For Žižek, from the moment we enter into the world of language, reality is where we escape to avoid the Real … [Ideology] is a framework that forecloses the Real in order to make reality smooth and consistent.

This distinction between reality and the Real mirrors that between ‘nature’ and Nature. For example, we may construct nature as a source of environmental services or goods for fulfilling our perceived economic needs. Or we can (re)construct nature as a device for justifying survival (or selection) of the fittest. ‘Participatory development’ and other ideological constructs can be helpful as well as distracting in terms of supporting environmental responsibility (Reynolds, 2008a).

The notion of framing as a proactive exercise relates also to the development of ideologies, and particularly to the understanding and practice around green ideology. In Box 4, I introduced a discussion regarding whether ‘ecologism’ might be respected as a fully edged ideology. My reason for introducing this question here is not to discuss the merits of Dobson or Freeden, but rather simply to signal their shared idea that ideological frameworks are themselves conceptual constructs – that is, human devices used for making sense of and acting in complex situations. The two framings of ecological ideas suggested by Dobson and Freeden, though suggesting different levels of ideological maturity, both serve to generate an enhancement of conversation, policy and action around environmental responsibility.

However, the Humphrey quotation given in Box 4 also touches on the idea of dogmatism. The extent to which ideologies might be conceived as being dogmatic (i.e. invoking unquestionable principles) relates to the quality of conversation generated through such frames of reference. Highly dogmatic ideologies, such as various expressions of fundamentalism – whether spiritual, scientific or political – have the ability to shut down rather than open conversation.

Activity 3 Dogmatism

Think of an example where you have experienced someone's argument on an environmental issue – either personally or more indirectly through the media – as being dogmatic. List some of the experiences that you had when subject to these seemingly intransigent framing devices.

Make notes in your learning journal or note book [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Here, I want to emphasise the point that ideology can be a constructive as well as a destructive means of facilitating environmental responsibility. Being ideological is not necessarily bad. In fact, as Ronald Moore suggests with framing in general, being ideological might be an unavoidable trait of human and cultural activity. Perhaps the real challenge is to mobilise techniques of framing to improve support for environmental responsibility. These more practical dimensions of framing are the subject of the next two subsections.


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