In philosophy and theory there is always a struggle with language. While new coinings occasionally take place, the norm is rather that terms must be wrested from ordinary language and put to different uses. There is always a danger here, for the terms continue to carry the connotations of ordinary language, yet theory also attempts to sever some of those connotations and also send the terms in a new or different direction. Aristotle took the Greek word kategorein, meaning “to accuse” and gave it an entirely different inflection far from this connotation. We can imagine how perplexed his audience was and that they said things like “but those aren’t accusations!” as if ordinary language should be a guide to philosophy. Heidegger takes the German term Dasein, meaning to “exist”, and transforms it into an account of being-in-the-world. Theoretical language does not treat ordinary language as a normative authority defining proper and improper use (Wittgenstein’s shameful idea), but instead struggles with the language it is thrown into– for it must work with something –so as to liberate a concept that departs from ordinary language. If ordinary language is the house, not of being, but of doxa, then theory is, in part, a struggle against the doxa housed in ordinary language. Often theory loses in this struggle with ordinary language. Doxa has its day and swallows up the concept through a triumph of common connotations. That’s how it often goes. But there’s no other way.
So it is with the term “ecology”. Ecology is relegated to the status of a regional ontology and is therefore only of interest to philosophers and theorists who work on climate, environmental issues, nature in literature, etc. Ecology, ordinary language says, is an investigation of nature, the environment, climate, and what is green. Those theorists interested in politics, the nature of knowledge. science, art, ethics, literature, society, etc., therefore have– the thinking it goes –no need to attend to ecology. It’s outside their research area.
But ecology is not the name of a regional ontology, of a discipline that investigates nature or the environment. To be sure, this form of thinking have been fruitfully applied in those domains– of course, ecology, outside green ecology anyway, has also had the valuable effect of leading us to question the concept of nature altogether –however, ecology isn’t a thesis about nature but rather a thesis about being. And, of course, it goes without saying so I’ll say it, that being is something that includes both “nature” and culture, meaning and matter, society and the environment, mind and world.
The ontological thesis of ecology is pan-ontological. Pan-ecology is the thesis that being is ecological through and through. Ecology is not defined by a domain of study because everything is ecological, but rather is defined by a style of thinking: a thinking that approaches beings in terms of being-with, investigating them as separable while nonetheless inhabiting assemblages in which they interact with one another, affect one another, depend on one another in a variety of ways, dominate and get dominated by one another, and above all touch one another. To think ecologically is to think in terms of systems and interactions rather than in terms of isolated and separated beings. It is to think in terms of horizons such that every being is surrounded by a horizon of relations and interactions like the penumbra about the sun, making that entity what it is. Ecology is not the name for something good, because, in fact, many ecologies are frightful and horrific, generating massive suffering for their inhabitants. Rather, it’s a name for being-with… And as we all know, there are many entities we’d prefer not to be with such as cancer causing pathogens, oppressive racists, etc., etc., etc.