In November of last year the DePaul Department of Philosophy Department hosted Ted Toadvine, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, who spoke about the politics of biodiversity (“Biodiversity and the Diacritics of Life”). Toadvine argued that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by experts as well as the general public; nevertheless, it is consistently wielded as an argument against commercial development, for example. Some of us in the audience were wary of the neoliberal implications of this argument. If biodiversity, like climate change, is considered a hard concept to grasp, does this give the public license to ignore the environmental impacts of unbridled development?
I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Invasive species for example contribute to diversity, but are not ecologically desirable. Aesthetically we appreciate diversity, but in a context of harmony and balance. Toadvine offered a clever and memorable example of a table setting; we wouldn’t want every single piece of china and silverware to be different. He also pointed out that biodiversity is linked to our concepts of “nature,” and often stands in for a vague idea of an aesthetically pleasing landscape.
Toadvine also discussed biodiversity in relationship to identity politics. He reminded us that the concept of biodiversity arose with a focus on diversity in socio-cultural contexts, and argued that the value of social diversity undergirds arguments for biodiversity. While I agree that “diversity” as a social concept is doing rhetorical work in this context, I’m more interested in the broader genealogy of diversity as a value. Toadvine mentioned Darwin, for example, but I’m also reminded of Linnaeus and Enlightenment fascination with biological variation.
Toward the end of the talk, Toadvine adopted a sublime mode, making references to the relationship of human beings to much larger scale phenomena, up to and including the cosmos. I noted, then, that I was emotionally swept along, and subsequently reflected on the relationship between affect and aesthetics in this context. In the Q & A, I commented that the aesthetic may warrant greater attention, in environmental philosophy, because of its relationship to affect, and the arguments from neuroscience that affect underlies judgment. In other words, if our ethical decisions are influenced by our (emotional) attitudes, and our emotions are closely tied to our aesthetic responses, then ethics and aesthetics may be lost cousins—contiguous rather than opposing concepts. I assume that they are opposing concepts in some quarters for two reasons: the tendency in our culture to oppose surface qualities (the aesthetic) to deep truths (ethical), and the academy’s devotion to ethics at the seeming expense of aesthetics.
In the mid eighteenth century Edmund Burke articulated a popular set of assumptions that connected aesthetic response with feeling. The sublime was connected with pain, and the beautiful with pleasure. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful built on the psychological theories of his time and particularly the association theories of John Locke. Burke’s work reminds us that aesthetics has occupied philosophers for millennia, and his major arguments “consummate” the relationship between psychology and aesthetics. Though Burke’s argument was not overtly ethical, his interlocutor, Mary Wollstonecraft made the connection between ethics and aesthetics clear. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for example, Wollstonecraft performatively modulated the masculine sublime to her own feminine rights discourse. In the same work Wollstonecraft denounced superficial, feminine beauty and championed intellectual beauty in women. Indeed she redefined beauty in this context.
Circling back to the idea of biodiversity as a proxy for picturesque landscapes, I wonder about the nature of our attachment to the picturesque in nature? Does love follow beauty, or does a judgment of beauty follow attachment to place? Can radically inclusive, neighborly love makes us see landscapes differently and appreciate biodiversity beyond our current, iterated aesthetic conventions? And if our experience of love/beauty became radically inclusive, how would this modulate given aesthetic principles? More in the next installment.
BBC Radio 4 In Our Time
 Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.