First-Person-Science: Towards a Culture of Poetic Objectivity
For the last 400 years or so science has relied on an “objectivity” provided by rational thinking and measurements. The empirical method introduced by the British philosopher William Bacon had done away with scholastic speculation even though empiricism retained a discursive way of communicating arguments. But as the preceding chapters suggest, an “objective science” is incomplete because it fails to take into account the living human observer. If it is to be more reliable and insightful, science needs to go a step further and include shared embodied experience in its methodology. It should continue to rely on third-person “objective” methods of empirical observation and intellectual reasoning, but it must also introduce irreducible subjective meaning as a necessary element.
This may sound oxymoronic – how can science be both objective and subjective? – but in fact subjective experience can be developed in a systematic way. Unhindered by conventions, fears, and jargon we can train our empiricism and communication to access those parts of ourselves and others to study and report on the living self. Poetic language allows us to systematically express our relationship with the world and with one another.
But is this truly possible? Is there a way to share felt experiences that are based on our common nature as bodies in a more-than-human world? If we follow the dualist view with its emphasis on the principle that we cannot know ourselves, then my proposal does not seem to be very promising. But if we rely on the finding that we all share lived experiences that are not hidden from the mind but rather constitute its foundation, connecting on that deep level seems entirely possible. The “ground of being” arguably becomes the prerequisite for communication. In principle there is no methodology problem. The major obstacle here is the fact that humans have too little access to their embodied needs.1 These needs are nothing than the species-specific manifestations of our existential necessities as organic beings. They are individual, but also to a very high degree shared. We all need bonding, food, shelter, health, and freedom – not only humans but also animals.
Enlivenment means to profoundly rethink our relationship to the world, to the whole – and to other individuals who are selves like us. It means to overcome the dualistic gap that stands at the base of so many annoying, unnecessary dichotomies of thought and feeling that are deeply engrained in our epoch. Dualistic thinking prevents us from coming into contact with reality and understanding it – on both the empirical and semiotic side of our existence. Enlivenment, by contrast, puts the life into the center. It begins with the foundational premise that we are embodied selves and therefore we know what it means to be animated parts of a living world. We know how it feels to be in the world and to be an individual. This is the deepest knowledge that we can access. Why should such inquiries be off-limits to science and banished from economics and public policy?
Poetic science means sharing the “conditio vitae” between all beings
The real challenge to such a vision of science, however, is to learn how we might systematically approach this kind of felt experience and generalize it into knowledge and practice. Such an approach will require not only theoretical shifts but also practical changes. The goal must be to re-embody thinking and re-connect it with the corporeal-meaningful rationality of our body-mind and of all other living systems which have been flourishing on our planet for some six billion years now. Enlivenment is about trying to establish a logic of sentience beyond the limited logic of “objective” reason. It relies on another type of verifiable objectivity – the logic of our shared experiences as living beings. Pain and joy are objective facts for all living beings because we all feel them. Living agency is an objective fact that unites and transcends all disciplines. The idea of enlivenment means that we can – and that we even have to – find a complement of lived practice for any theory – in biology, ecology, economy, sociology, psychology, physics and also the arts. This lived practice might be able to provide a basis for generalizable principles and transdisciplinary inquiry.
But what guidelines can lead us to find a suitable lived practice for this new type of science? Does a model already exist, in any spiritual tradition, in the arts, in science? And how can we justify a universal validity for the practical framework once we have found it?
In the history of ideas, proposals like mine have until now been viewed as impossible. Lived practice has been considered as outside of any (scientific) objectivity because it is seen as too situational, contingent and particular. This attitude forms one of the cornerstones of our Western civilization, which dismisses any deductions about values from the observation of natural facts, living beings included, as a “naturalistic fallacy”. (It is interesting to note that this dogma is not usually applied to Darwinistic/neoliberal economics, which invokes biological patterns and metaphors to validate its principles.)
But a serious consideration of lived practice forces us to reckon with a stubborn, objective reality: Living beings are those natural “facts” that produce value and meaning from within. They are manifest in their desire to stay alive and unfold. Any living being intentionally – if mostly unconsciously – strives to exist, grow and give and receive. The (original) theoretical premises of biological sciences should not allow such observable realities to be marginalized or ignored.
To be living is to be full of being
The way out of this impasse in the theory and practice of science is to search for a new poetic objectivity that can re-integrate individuals on both a corporeal and existential level. We need a science that goes beyond an abstract objectivity of the mind to embrace, as well, an objectivity of the living organism. Poetic objectivity is that kind of objectivity. It refers to our shared condition of embodied beings – the conditio vitae. Poetic objectivity is possible because of empirical subjectivity. Being a body as an irreducible fact and experience – as opposed to “having a body,” which implies that our body is an “other”, separate from the self – subverts the old dogma of Descartes’ that we can only be sure about our mind (“Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore I am). It is possible to assert a subjective, first-person certainty about our body and experience to which even Descartes’ famous phrase can be traced back. This is exactly the switch from the Enlightenment to the Enlivenment. Being a body and having feelings and socially expressed, nonverbal interactions, are empirical facts. They are also dimensions of living that are shared with all other animate beings. Poetic objectivity is about this subjective core self: the existential meaning that any organic being produces from its center of concern that is its self.
The crucial point is that we all – and I mean all of us living beings, from the most modest bacterial cell in our guts to you, the reader – share the experience of a meaningful core self that is concerned with what happens to it and strives to keep itself alive. As living beings, we all have a genuine interest in continuing to live, and we know the joy and light-footed exuberance of just being. Poetic objectivityseeks to understand how expressiveness-in-our-body feels and can be communicated, and elaborated upon.2
Poetic objectivity deals with the embodiment of existential sense and meaning in its many non-rational guises. These may be pictorial, gestural or palpable in other ways, such as poems, sculptures and music. Feeling in the sense discussed in section III – as subjective experience of meaning and concern (not necessarily consciousness) – is not only a category that is universal among all species, but is also a strong, even defining aspect of poetic experience. We could say that the poetic gesture is the natural expression of the experiences of a poetic-embodied existence. A great work of art seizes us emotionally and by this shows something profound about aliveness. This emotional understanding is a kind of shared existential experience – a poetic objectivity. Such feelings are also evoked by nature itself as countless naturalists, artists, musicians and ordinary people can attest. Natural beings themselves are poetic expressions about aliveness.
I hasten to add that this is not the objectivity of a scientist’s proof. Poetic objectivity is weak. We cannot “prove” it with quantification or controlled, reproducible experiments. We can only try to bring it to the observer and let it do its work. On the other hand, poetic objectivity is stronger than any scientific reasoning because we can feel it and because it can transform our actions even before our conscious minds can recognize it. Great literature is able to transform a personal life. Insights can be won not only through one’s own experience, but also through experiencing artistic meaning – because that meaning is about aliveness. The philospher Ivy Campbell-Fisher observed: “If I could be as sad as some passages in Mozart, my glory would be greater as it is… My grasp of the essence of sadness comes not from moments I have been sad, but from moments when I have seen sadness before me released from entanglements with contingency... in the works of our great artists...”3 Poetic objectivity provides something that we might call an embodied-empirical proof.
“Thinking like a mountain”
Poetic objectivity thus means that we can submit any practice to the question: Is it a poetic accomplishment? Is it gracious? Does it enhance life? Does it bring more life? Does it convey an experience of aliveness? Does it make life fuller? These are obviously not the same questions utilitarians ask when they are looking for maximal benefit (a proxy metric for the common good). From an enlivenment aspect, questions about the common good point in a different direction and rely upon qualitative judgments. They take individual experience, freedom, growth and health into account, for example, and frankly recognize that any life-enhancing improvement can be grasped only by poetic imagination. It cannot be analysed or directly measured. It can be known solely through experience – in the same manner as the truth of a poem can only be understood from within the core self of a sentient being that uses language as a means of understanding the self of another being. In other words: Poetic objectivity is objectivity from a “shared first-person perspective.”
The idea of poetic objectivity, which complements “the view from the outside” (objectivity) with the experience from within (subjectivity), calls for a first-person-science to generalize this richer kind of knowledge. To be clear: “first-person” does not encompass the human ego perspective alone. It also means to give voice to non-egoistical human feelings – as well as to other “first persons” of experience. A first-person science would take account of the inner dimensions of foxes and fish, rivers and forests, oceans and shores. To take such a perspective means, as the pioneering eco-philosopher Aldo Leopold described it, to “think like a mountain.”4
One of the deep limitations of conventional scientific objectivity is its inability to advance social justice, or a fairer economy, or a sustainable climate, because it definitionally excludes the first-person perspective of other beings. Poetic objectivity helps us overcome this problem by enabling us to rethink our relationship to earth. It lets us properly recognize human life as a matter of embodied living-within-the-biosphere, blending materiality and meaning in the same commons-based system.
Finally, using this lens to see, we can begin to re-integrate the material, or third-person aspect of reality with the felt, first-person side that is otherwise “hidden within.” Both are equally valid and cannot exist alone without distorting our understanding of the full context. This relation is nicely expressed by the American poet and eco-philosopher Gary Snyder in a short, koan-like poem: “As the crickets’ soft autumn hum / is to us / so are we to the trees / as are they / to the rocks and the hills.”5
In this respect, any careful poetic description of a phenomenon of life becomes a scientific observation. A beautiful example of ecological research in the first-person therefore is the poetic genre of “nature writing” represented by John Muir, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, David Abram and others.6 In the fine arts world, the eco-arts movement has been experimenting with first-person scientific perspectives on our aliveness for decades, producing a host of highly interesting insights.7 From the standpoint of this essay they all are scientific explorations in a shared living world.
Learning the practice of first-person-science
The idea of poetic objectivity acknowledges that our sentience, our aliveness, is a scientific instrument. Many people may object that such an idea stretches the definition of “science” to a breaking point because science has traditionally held to the notion of measurement, reproducibility and falsifiability as key elements of the scientific method. The idea of poetic objectivity makes the case – boldly and frankly – for a broader, more reliable scientific methodology that can acknowledge the inner dimensions of living.
A first-person-science should attempt to corroborate those theoretical findings with methods which make the felt existence accessible and that also enable the sharing of these experiences. First-person-science considers feeling, expressiveness and meaning to be another important engine of scientific inquiry. Experiential methods are not the only tools, of course, but together with empirical observation and reasoning they are means to refine and share our experiences. They can become objective with regard to the body, which is the common ground of experience in all organisms.
This type of science is not new. Most cultures from diverse epochs have developed techniques for providing a first-person-account of what we are within the world. We thus should be able to draw guidance from these traditions, many of which are still used today or being rediscovered.
The neurobiologist Francisco Varela explicitly tried to unite empirical brain research, Buddhist meditation and phenomenological insight into a first-person-science.8 In his late work Varela routinely complemented brain-imaging techniques with a careful questioning of how the research subject felt and what he or she experienced. Varela regarded meditation as a scientific method of understanding the self in the world, and the self as a world, which cannot simply be marginalized as personal, subjective experience.9 He found that the feelings of serene emptiness elicited by meditation complements the scientific finding that organisms exist without a fixed anchor of identity, but rather as living beings implicated in a “meshwork of selfless selves.”10
Another traditional example of a first-person-method to share embodied insight is the Native American “medicine wheel” methodology of putting oneself into contact with the surrounding nature and one’s own feelings at the same time. The US nature philosopher and wilderness educator Jon Young has developed a rich, modern methodology to cultivate a “coyote mentoring” style of awareness. The goal is to enable practitioners to develop their feelings through contact with the presence of other feeling beings.11
Romanticism has been a perennial stronghold for the research of a “meaningful science.” Romantic thinkers have sketched several explicit programs of poetic objectivity: particularly amongst others in the German speaking world, Novalis and Johann Gottfried Herder; in the British “Northern Renaissance,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and, later, in the US, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In Germany, at the end of the 18th century, young romantics, among them presumably Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling, formulated a research program that culminated in the idea that a precise description of the world could possibly only be done "in a language of poetry, in a language of love.“12 This language automatically includes other beings as referents for emotions and metaphorical self-understanding.
We can also find first-person natural history in the works of Alexander von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The major aesthetic theories of Goethe and Schiller both follow the notion of this romantic approach. Goethe’s position is exceptionally interesting: He mainly succeeded as a poet but explicitly considered his activities as science, and he did not reject scientific method at all. Goethe thought about nature as a grand process of artistic revelation – and, vice versa: he believed that a successful work of art somewhat represented nature’s creative forces. The British literary scholar Elizabeth Sewell has termed this school of thinking “the orphic voice.”13 It has left us with a host of findings still not even touched upon.
In some respect, therefore, we could call the Enlivenment approach a “Romanticism 2.0”. Romanticism was the search to understand the character of the world through its appearances, the claim that the appearances are not to be shoved aside as mere illusions but that they have a poetic way of speaking about the world. In my eyes, this task has not been made obsolete by scientific progress, but has rather been shunted aside without a due regard for the profound epistemological errors that science introduced. Many of our current difficulties stem from the fact that we rejected the romantic notion of the world as inherently creative and alive – and then proceeded to build an entire civilisation upon a flawed foundation.
We should realize that Romanticism was not about (or at least not only about) the elevation of emotions, subjective feelings, gruesome experiences and personal suffering to attain artistic dignity. It was first and foremost a scientific way of exploring the world as a subjective phenomenon. It was also a historical attempt to build a first-person-science. Hölderlin understood this endeavour as the "need for a new mythology“. Unlike 18th century thinkers, however, we can re-evaluate this idea in light of the extensive findings of advanced biology, systems research, biosemiotics and quantum physics. All of these sciences now validate the original romantic claim that the living world’s principles can be clearly seen in the appearances of living bodies and meadows, streams and forests.
Aliveness as artistic transformation
Contemporary German artist Joseph Beuys has been reviving the romantic heritage in his art. He relies heavily on Goethe and his integrative understanding of creative processes, leading to an entanglement of life and art that is evident in the creativity, productivity and sense of both. Beuys has also spent his life trying to expand art into the general sphere of everyday life. From here comes the (often-trivialised) notion that “everybody is an artist.” For Beuys, life processes can be understood and emulated only if they are perceived as part of the unfolding creativity of a living self in contact with others. This attitude clearly brings to mind the notion of “poetic objectivity” developed here.
Beuys called his approach to an imaginative change of reality the “warmth process” or “warmth work.”14 He believed that every gesture resulting from life processes is inherently creative and productive. Conversely, this also means that only enlivening processes can truly transform society and one’s own consciousness.
This notion brings us from the idea of first-person-ecology to the broader practice of what we might call “first-person-sustainability.” If a new individual practice is going to enhance sustainability, it must also enhance life. It must increase the generativity and the felt authenticity of the agents involved.
Two Beuys scholars, performance artist Shelley Sacks and cultural researcher Hildegard Kurt, have developed this notion of sustainability as enlivening process. To catalyze this process, both artists are collaboratively developing methods to engage in and express first-person-experiences of aliveness. One of them is the “Earth forum” created by Sacks, which is a process of meditation about a real item “of the earth” that participants choose. There is then a collective emotional sharing, intended to create a presence of authentic feeling that itself is treated as material of artistic imagination.15 Sacks and Kurt consider these methods and techniques forms of artistic expression and awareness-building. They see their activities in Beuys’ tradition of “Social Sculpture”, which can be understood as encompassing those human actions which explicitly envision and empower our creative self, and open up a poetic space in which “being alive” itself becomes a malleable, highly creative artistic material.16
Toward a culture of poetic precision and paradoxical interbeing
“There is no wealth but life,” wrote the British 19th century artist and philosopher John Ruskin. But what is the standard for assessing the wealth of life? Just as enlightenment thinking has had its conspicuous shortcomings, so the proposed first-person science must be approached with a healthy caution. Where objective science renders the world more and more lifeless through its tendency to dissect, analyze and state half-truths, subjective science could easily degenerate into a system of unchecked irrationality and manipulations of the gullible.
The mere sense of “feeling alive” has no explanatory content whatsoever. A nice sounding poem might be full of clichés. In group processes seeking to cultivate mindfulness, charismatic leaders may easily dominate and mislead others, a phenomenon referred to in the literature as “expanded ego”. There is also the danger of seduction into emotional states that might feel quite poetic but which have no objectivity, and which cannot be truly shared.
We easily confound the overwhelming feeling of closeness and the experience of “being really alive” with psychological fusion and projection, which always carry with them some sorts of emotional abuse. “Coming to oneself” per se, then, is not a reliable basis for a first-person-science. A mass murderer can feel alive when committing his crime; he probably does, and that is the reason for his behaviour: His personality disorder makes him feel dead and disconnected at all other times. A fetish for “feeling alive” can in this way become totalitarian. This is the main reason why Western civilization has developed its scientific method in the first place: To safeguard against seduction and superstition by requiring testable, reproducible results.
It is therefore necessary to negotiate the antagonistic tendencies of lived reality. This idea of “life” is the opposite of the esoteric cliché. If we accept nature as the epitome of freedom-in-necessity, we can no longer regard it as a haven of morally elevated, beautiful and healthy behaviour. Ecological thinking often tries to substitute a nostalgic, mother-earth version of redemption for the deadening, rational dystopia of modern times. But both of these choices represent an evasion. To be really alive means to be embedded in a mess that must constantly be negotiated. This is the species-specific way Homo sapiens realizes its contradictions. It is the only way that culture can arise.
More than anything we need to carefully nurture a “culture of poetic precision” – to be observant of felt life while accepting the material, natural processes in the world. We must develop freedom within this framework of necessity. We must know the passions, but make decisions in an informed manner. We must cultivate an empathetic attitude, but recognize that some suffering cannot be avoided. We must acknowledge death as the ultimate transformative power.
Above all, our science, economics and law must honor the feeling core in each one of us – but at the same time must constantly evaluate our passions with the maturity of the adult personality. We must know that existence is paradoxical; that every light casts a shadow; that every indulgence comes at a natural cost; that closeness, but not fusion, is possible; that death is to be faced on a personal and on a civilisational scale; and that only by coping with these calamities is real transformation possible.
The most convincing guideline for a culture of poetic precision, to my mind, is to always put the other’s needs first. To understand the other – streams and forests, bees and birds, children and lovers – as the source of one’s own aliveness. This poetic generalisability means to remain open to experience the differences exhibited by other living beings and their communicative processes. It means to accept the “thou” as something unfathomable that cannot be subject to judgment. As we have seen, this idea of an irreducible other or whole that allows the individual to thrive through a process of continuous exchange, is also a key aspects of a philosophy of the commons.
This perspective is attained when the observer is able to see herself and others as embodied subjects with their own needs, and not just as objects to fulfill self-serving desires. Opening up oneself to the other’s aliveness makes possible the experience of “embodied interbeing.” We realize that only through the mirror of the other can we become aware of ourselves. Empirically, this “other first” is just how the world works: On ecological grounds, we all come to be solely through the others who feed us and upon whom we feed, and with whom we exchange oxygen and carbon, water, energy, shelter and mutual bonds.17 “The other” is the indispensable partner who enables a human infant grows into his humanity. Only if the caregiver really “sees” the baby with its needs and deeply welcomes these needs can an infant develop a healthy, socially adjusted personality.
Iranian-German artist Pantea Lachin coined the term “enlarged vision” for this creative reciprocity.18 “Enlarged vision” builds on the wisdom that to exist always requires to be perceived. Self and other co-exist in a mutually inclusive manner. Neither of them is possible alone. A self that is unsure of itself will fail to welcome the other. Failing to relate to the other self is not a viable strategy for maintaining life. The aliveness of the self is possible only because there already exists a separate “thou” that is able to give life, always feeding the network of reciprocal interdependence.
1 This is the basic assumption in “Nonviolent Communication”. See Marshall B. Rosenberg (2003): Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.
2 See J. M. Coetzee’s opposition to Thomas Nagel’s essay “What it is like to be a bat?”: “To be a living bat is to be full of being. Bat-being in the first case, human-being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.” J. M. Coetzee (1999): The lives of animals. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 33.
3 Ivy G. Campbell-Fisher (1950): “Aesthetics and the Logic of Sense”. Journal of General Psychology 43:245-273.
4 Aldo Leopold (1949): A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5 See: Gary Snyder (1992): No Nature: New and Selected Poems. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
6 Some interesting attempts to generalize a first-person ecology in a more systematic way include work by the French physicist and philosopher Michel Bitbol. Id. (2010): “Introduction”. Ecology in the first person. Colloque, 6. April 2010, Paris.
8 Francisco J. Varela; et al., eds. (1999): Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford: Stanford UP.
9 Varela, Thompson & Rosch (1991), op. cit., Andreas Weber (2011): “Die wiedergefundene Welt”. In: Bernhard Pörksen, ed., Schlüsselwerke des Konstruktivismus. Bielefeld: VS-Verlag.
10 Francisco J. Varela (1991): "Organism: a meshwork of selfless selves.“ In: Tauber, A.I., ed., Organism and the origins of self. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
11 Jon Young, Ellen Haas, Evan McGown (2008): Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. Shelton (WA): OWLink Media.
12 Christoph Quarch (2013): “Die Versöhnung von Geist und Leben in der Poesie” . Talk at the conference Lebendigkeit neu denken. Für die Wiederentdeckung einer zentralen Dimension in Gesellschaft, Politik und Nachhaltigkeit. Böll-Foundation, Berlin, 14. November 2012, unpublished.
13 Elizabeth Sewell (1961): The Orphic Voice. Poetry and Natural History. Washington D.C.: Routledge.
16 Hildegard Kurt (2010): Wachsen! Über das Geistige in der Nachhaltigkeit. Stuttgart: Meyer 2010; Shelley Sacks (2011): “Social Sculpture and New Organs of Perception. New practices and new pedagogy for a humane and ecologically viable future”. In: Victory Walters; Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes; eds., Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics. Münster: LIT-Verlag.
17 This view has been beautifully set forth by David Abram, op. cit., and id. (2011): Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage.
18 Pantea Lachin (2012): Enlarged Vision: Coming to Oneself as Coming to the Other. Postgraduate Research Application, Oxford Brookes University, unpublished. See also: Andreas Weber (2013): “There is a crack in everything.” Preface to Frank Darius: Das Paradies ist hier. Heidelberg: Kehrer-Verlag, p. 2-7.
Next, Chapter 7>>
This essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics,” by Andreas Weber was recently published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is also available to read here on Shareable. Enjoy!
Help build resilience. DONATE NOW