Published in "Resurgence" Jan. 1993. Permission to present it here kindly granted by the editor, Satish Kumar.MAURICE ASH
THE FABRIC OF THE WORLD
A Resurgence book
Green Books, Hartland £8.95 (1992)
Maurice Ash has written an extraordinarily succinct and compelling account of our philosophical understanding of environment and the manner in which faulty metaphysics have distorted our attitudes. This is not an account of "the" environment we all inhabit but an analysis of the importance of the meanings we attribute to this concept. The significance of his work is focused in the realisation that the idea of environment holds a redeeming possibility in a world besotted with the materialism of our times and the misapplication of science. Yet this vision is itself threatened with betrayal by those who could best promote it; a betrayal based on the absence of an appropriate understanding. The threat comes on the one hand from the sentimentality of New Age idealism and, on the other, from those who see the environmental issues as contained within the old Cartesian paradigm.
The philosophical approach is one to which Maurice Ash has been deeply attracted for some years; the deconstructive examination of meanings as the uses of words in the manner of Wittgenstein. This process of 'deconstruction' has led to the abandonment of almost all metaphysics of the Western world which originated in Greek thought. Traditionally we see ourselves as separate from the world so that we and the environment are two things. Such dualism, which is the basis of scientific observation in traditional experimentation, leads us to suppose that environment is something outside ourselves which we can manipulate to our advantage. Such a view tends however to split up our experiences of the world into numberless dualities each considered separately; the complex web of interconnection is not perceived. Had our forefathers been able to see the multiple consequences of inventing the internal combustion engine it is unlikely that they would have developed it, argues Ash. The same applies to many of our scientific achievements which have let loose the technologies of our time with scant consideration for the interdependence of their numerous consequences.
The pivot of dualism is the assumption that self is the opposite of context. Yet what if this fundamental dualism is questioned? We begin by unravelling our conceptualisation of self and soon discover extraordinary enigmas. We find that the self we think ourselves to be is no more than an attribution; a term in a story that might be otherwise told, a reification of a process that is inherently open, not closed and which lacks other than conceptually created boundaries. And this reification of self reappears in the whole process of supposing that abstract terms can stand for things when in truth they only indicate conceptions. The closer we get to 'self' in critical thought the less clear are its boundaries and hence its separation from 'environment' is called into question. We are in fact in endless open communication with all around us enabling us to say of the Universe, "I am not it, yet it is all of me." As this realisation dawns we are impelled towards a vision of wholeness in which our roles assume a responsibility unsuspected previously. Yet to conceive of a whole in an uncritical holism is to subscribe to an idealism that could become yet another mistaken ideology. This is because a careless view would see the 'whole' as a reification to be manipulated and hence throw us back into the arms of the dualism we have just rejected. The whole is un-measurably open and cannot be idealised. Such an idea is so confronting to traditional Western intelligence that rather than finding ways of moving with it we have fallen into decadent despair.
Ash writes (p4) "....if this bankruptcy is not yet universally recognised - and it isn't - this must surely be because people still suppose the mechanisms for controlling events... can continue to be operated, could we but sort out the levers. And they suppose this because they know nothing but mechanistic thought." Strong words indeed.
Our concern for environment is an expression of how meaningless our lives have become. In an extended discussion Maurice Ash rejects all approaches in which abstractions about 'the' environment could lead back into ideologies based in dualistic thinking. Only that which is immediately apprehended can make sense. So he focuses on the "small is beautiful" approach because only in local issues can people be truly involved without misleading abstraction. There are perhaps dangers in this approach for I feel it is far from clear that the philosophy necessarily implies that some orders of scale are more important than others. When, for example, does 'small' become 'big'? Where are the boundaries? In any case a locality is inevitably interdependent in innumerable ways (ecologically, geographically, economically, socially) with its neighbours and the relations between them crucial to each. While the shortcomings of the nation state are clear so also must be the fact of interdependence of location within a wider sphere. A pond is not necessarily more beautiful than the ocean. Perhaps a pond is comforting for those who find the ocean awesome. Yet so far as beauty or relevance is concerned both have their place in the scheme of things. Indeed it is exactly this problem of the desirable relations between regions and larger units that underlies the discussions of 'subsidiarity' in the context of contemporary European politics. Maurice Ash indeed admits the role of the 'large' to be inescapable but his taking refuge in 'lifeboats' leaves a number of important nettles ungrasped.
Ash is aware that the contemporary philosophy of deconstruction is little more than a rediscovery of a whole of a philosophy of being that marked deeply the whole tradition of Indian thought and feeling. The prime focus of Madhyamaka philosophy in Buddhism was on the 'emptiness' of concepts. Emptiness implies that no self and no thing has an inherent existence as an entity; everything is process, the aspects of which are all interdependent. Ash writes "The encouraging thing is...that Wittgenstein...entirely by his own efforts virtually reconstituted the thinking of Nagarjuna...from nearly two thousand years ago. This is ...a measure of the distance we ourselves have yet to travel" (p31). Indeed in his emphasis on environment as interdependence, Ash comes near to equating the term with Emptiness itself. To do so might have led him to some interesting conclusions for the 'emptiness' of Buddhism is no mere intellectual construct; rather it is a pivot for a whole way of being based on meditative enquiry. Even so Ash's whole project lies within the field I term 'Buddhistics' wherein these ancient concepts are seen to have a vital relevance to our contemporary dilemmas.
The final chapter, buddhistically entitled "Right Livelihood", indeed emphasises this theme. "The fulcrum of that world whose values must...change if catastrophe is to be averted is the metaphysical self. And the agent of this transformation is the notion of environment. Environment, it might be said, is that to which no Self, in its capacity of a detached observer, can belong. Environment annihilates Self, just as it negates the discrete objects that...compose the reality of the world. The world is composed, not of objects...but of forms of life, of being...of relationships: and not of relationships between things, but between relationships in infinite regression, with no ultimate reference. An environment is hence a form of being in which observer and observed are dissolved."
Ash seeks the supercession of our limiting cast of thought and his project is an exploration of possibilities and of ultimate questions which, like koans, cannot perhaps be intellectually resolved within the frame of language. The heart felt intuition of meditation is also needed here. Our Western individualism needs a total reconsideration, says Ash, and the way forward is through the understanding of connections wherever they occur and upon whatever scale. If, as Ash finally implies, we must be mad before we are sane at least endeavours such as this may act as a red ribbon through a minefield.
Maurice Ash is a bold and convincing writer capable of passages of great philosophical insight and beauty. I can see him at his desk working on an idea; an alternative occurs to him and down it goes in parenthesis. For some this will make his text a demanding read. I counsel persistence for there are jewels here that need to be widely appreciated. Ash wants to "offer a gift to whoever will receive it, because I think I have something to impart." He has, and anyone perplexed by the dilemmas of our time would do well to listen.
After midnight, when the still streets
drip from the trees audibly soft leaves
and I smile to hear sleepy voices
silenced by a closing window's sound,
I take a match to an incense stick
and set bright the dark candle in my private shrine.
With six slow breaths the pillared flame
sets this brooding throne aglow
where, pivoted upon some silent thought,
the golden face spans inwardly
the space between the symbol and the seen.
Come close, with eyes as camera
trace the perfections of a latent shot,
memory projected on a screen,
moment immortalised perhaps or trapped;
perceive, half hidden under downcast lids,
the open eyes now fixed yet flexible
filling quietened rooms and grateful heart
with the silent quality of the street-
space between windows
treading softly between couchant forms.