Environmental Philosophy

Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2006

Sean Williams
Pages 6-12

Chiasmic Wildness

Whether one’s attention lies with the big wilderness outside or the wild people and places that survive amidst our ecologically impoverished cities and towns, a thorough and rigorous reflection on wildness remains as a task for environmental philosophy. The political and literary movements concerned with the wilderness have sparked passion, insight, and moments of brilliance, but by and large leave us today at best confused, and at worst naïve, with respect to our thinking of wildness. The attempts at philosophical rigor from the ‘fields’ of so-called ‘environmental philosophy’ or ‘environmental ethics’ certainly bring one no further toward understanding the experiences of, say, 500 miles of tundra, or the power and push of a river, or the density of a rainforest, or a kiss. Keeping the illumination of direct experience in mind, this paper will attempt a phenomenology of wildness, using the work of 20th century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of chiasm describes a perceptual relationship of intertwining, of intimacy and opacity, between Self and Other, in which the Other’s presence guides one’s own perceptions. Reflection around this chiasmic exchange may help us to understand the peculiar perceptual experience with what we call the wild, and perhaps to understand it as a sort of chiasmic wildness. This chiasmic wildness would not be incarcerated in wilderness areas or wild animals, but would exist in our embodied relationships with other people, animals, plants, and places. This paper is offered as an attempt at reflection, as what Martin Heidegger called a Holzweg: wandering down a path that may lead nowhere, but that must be followed beyond where one stands today.