The Within, The Without
The German forester Peter Wohlleben has aroused the ire of some scientists, as reported in The Guardian, with his book on The Hidden Life of Trees. Some scientists, it seems, have accused Wohlleben of writing “fairy tales” about the inner life of trees and forests.
This controversy is, in some ways, an excellent illustration of the dichotomy of the “outside” and “inside”, or of the explicate and implicate, or subjective and objective orientations that was raised in the comments to the previous post. I only know of the contents of Wohlleben’s book from hearsay, but the notion of “the secret life of plants” or plant consciousness is hardly a new one, even among some plant ecologists.
I would say, from what I have read of Wohlleben’s book in The Guardian or elsewhere, that this German forester is highly sensitive to the inwardness of plants and trees, and that his knowledge of their inwardness or “secret life” is gained through what I previously called “empathetic epistemics”. That is, he is able to enter himself, consciously, into the life of the trees. In fact, his “method” as such he makes quite clear. It is “love”, and to that extent also, he may well be an incipient example of what Jean Gebser refers to as “the transparency of the world” in his perceptions of the inner life of the trees and the forests. And I don’t consider “empathetic epistemics” any less “scientific” in that respect than the more objective methods that simply stay glued to the surface of things — their “outside”.
What we normally call “science” is a method of knowing and of verification of that knowledge, and also of what constitutes valid knowledge — the determination of the facts of the matter. However, that knowledge, however worthy and valid it is, touches only upon the “outside” of things, by establishment — the “evident”, the obvious, the objective, and which precludes the whole area of “subjective values” (or interiority) as faulty science, even where it admits to the reality of such “subjective values”, or even the facts of consciousness, at all. This was, for example, a complaint against orthodox or standard evolutionary theory made by Lancelot Lyle White in his book Internal Factors in Evolution.
There is a long tradition in science, or natural philosophy, dating back at least to Rene Descartes, that the cosmos is to be treated as if it were a machine (the Clockwork Universe) and living organisms little more than automatons functioning within, and as an echo of, the great Cosmic Machine. We have referred to that worldview here as “the Mechanical Philosophy” (and have contrasted that with “the Hermetic Philosophy”). This distinction between the Mechanical and the Hermetic arises from the dichotomisation of Being into objective and subjective aspects, or body and mind dualism, or an outside and an inside, the difference being, of course, that the Mechanical Philosophy pretty much denies that an “inside” exists at all.
Wohlleben acknowledges, though, the validity of the objective approach. He simply denies that it is complete in itself. And this deliberate ignorance of subjective or inner factors by the Mechanical Philosophy is the common (and valid) complaint by everyone from LL Whyte, William Blake, Jean Gebser, Jung, Nietzsche, Rosenstock-Huessy and so on — in fact, going at least as far back as Heraclitus and his philosophical conflict with his arch-foe Parmenides. I would say that this argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus represented the seed-germ of what was later to develop into the divergent branches of the Mechanical and the Hermetic Philosophies, or into what came to be characterised as the “classical” and “romantic” consciousness.
The irritation of some scientists with Wohlleben, seemingly because of his lack of “disinterested objectivity” or assuming “the objective stance” — or intellectual and psychic distantiation from what Gebser calls “perspectivising” consciousness — is not a sufficient objection against his supposed “fairy tales” about the “hidden” or inner life of trees. It could well be true insight. It could well be an example of Gebser’s “transparency of the world”. Wohlleben does, indeed, insist that he has his own “method” of validating knowledge, which he calls “love”, and which we call “empathetic epistemics”. And, yes, that is involved in what we traditionally understand as belonging to “the magical structure of consciousness”. The shape-shifter or polymorph who is able to enter into the consciousness of other beings empathetically.
And the problem of the “culture of narcissism” is the empathy deficit, so it’s not surprising that a purely perspectivising and objectivating science would discount empathy as a valid mode of knowing that true inner life of things or the phenomena. Wohlleben seems as sensitive to the inner reality of trees and forests as much as Blake was sensitive to that inner life. And I’m not so ready to dismiss his “fairy tales” as those scientists who seem to believe he’s making things up simply because they haven’t developed in themselves the same empathetic access to the inner life of other beings themselves.
I’m all for science and reason. I’m just not for a science that has deliberately limited itself and narrowed its vision to a very small spectrum of our full reality — the “objective” — and then normalises this as “the one best way”, or what William Blake called “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”. It’s quite clear that in limiting the life of other beings, we have also limited our own. And in treating other living organisms, or the cosmos even, as automatons, we have become ourselves automatons. “They became what they beheld finally”. That’s the meaning of “narcissism”, but also of “idolatry”.
What Gebser calls “the transparency of the world”, or “diaphaneity“, is precisely insight into this inner life of beings, into their energetic nature. Mr. Wohlleben, far from penning “fairy tales”, may actually be one of our incipient consciousness “mutants” in Gebser’s sense. I wouldn’t discount his experience of the inner life of trees and forests quite so readily.