Incorporating Goethean Science into Equine Ecology

The science of ecology studies the interplay between individual organisms and their environments, including interactions with both conspecifics and other species – including humans. Ecology is an interdisciplinary science that embraces both the biological and Earth sciences. Ethology is the study of animal behavior under natural conditions (as opposed to behaviorism, the study of behavioral responses under laboratory settings). Anthrozoology (aka human/animal studies) is a subset of the biological sciences that is also very much interdisciplinary with ethology as well as anthropology, human and veterinary medicine, and psychology. All of these disciplines are quite interrelated. Ecology should not be confused with environmentalism; the latter, in its more common definition, is more a system of social and ideological beliefs. Nonetheless, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a sustentative environment is a requirement for a healthy organism. Instead of taking a traditional segmented approach to equine behavior and welfare that concentrates on individual “parts” *, I have chosen to approach all aspects through the ecological environment in which the horse lives. In other words, this allows me to view the species as a whole from its overall biological needs while also regarding each individual horse as it lives and interacts within its own particular ecosystem.

* The “parts” that I am referring to here equate into the various “fields” in the equine sciences including nutrition, behavior and its modification (aka “training” whether by classical, operant or any of the so-called “natural” methods), medicine, and so on.

The Enlightenment historical period gave us scientists and philosophers such as Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Bacon, and Locke. While they all differed in their individual philosophies to varying degrees, their works shaped and molded our current quantitative, materialistic approach within the sciences. Modern science attempts to understand the world and everything in it through a veil of mathematics breaking it down into parts, quantitatively analyzing each phenomenon in (primarily) artificial settings in attempt to understand cause and effect, with the ultimate purpose of prediction and control. This is a science in which human perception is regarded as untrustworthy. It is one in which the methods to achieve the results have become the ends in themselves rather than a means toward extrinsic value. (Robbins 2005) This approach to science as applied to nature can become monstrous and destructive when it loses sight of the original purpose of its calculations. This type of “monster” brings us everything from the capability of mass destruction to pharmaceutical drug side effects. While modern science claims to be objective and not subject to the subjectivity of human “nature”, it is really nothing more than an odd, historically contingent way to view the world. (Robbins 2005) To say that science is without any subjectivity is to say that humans are not part of nature, and indeed modern science has given us the view that humans are “aliens in the machine” known as the world. (Robbins 2005)

It is not that understanding the function of all the “parts” (i.e., “reductionism”) is a bad thing in itself. It is, in fact, necessary. It is the total reliance upon what we discover in these parts and then thinking we can sum up the parts to achieve the whole without ever having examined the whole (and how it is affected by its environment) in the first place that gets us into trouble. Reductionism is then used to explain the world of experiences by reducing their meaning to the causal events behind the phenomena. Reliance upon this type of science to provide all the answers gives us “nothingbutness” disease (Frankl). And so we see the living body as ‘nothing but’ a structured sack of bones and soft tissues in which parts operate under a system of complex chemical reactions; in other words, we lose the extrinsic meaning or purpose.

In the century following the birth of the Enlightenment period, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) gave us another approach to science – a participative one that makes a distinction between living, growing, developing forms, and dead ones. Modern science on the other hand loves to perform scientific investigations by dissecting dead organisms and/or by taking things apart. Goethean science does not look at just an interconnected set of actualities but also considers a holistic structure of possibilities. Goethean science is formed out of reciprocity for each phenomenon being studied. Goethe wrote: “Natural objects should be sought and investigated as they are and not to suit observers, but respectfully as if they were divine beings.” (Seamon 1998). Conventional science investigations tend to separate the student/scientist from that which he is studying and can lead to arbitrary or inaccurate understandings. (Seamon 1998) In contrast, this participative, engaging type of science actually becomes therapeutic for the scientist. According to Brent Dean Robbins: “The process of owning up to our obligations is one that can be a healing process, a process of coming home to ourselves; hence it is “therapeutic”.” (Robbins 2005) [Quotes original] This process is what Goethe referred to as delicate empiricism; in other words, direct, sensorial experience. Every part of nature is always in a process…of being born, growing and developing, and of dying. Understanding of this continual cycle in a holistic manner cannot be reached through mathematical abstractions; it can only be reached through careful observation and perception.

There are at least two aspects of this delicate empiricism: 1) the empiricism gives primacy to the perception; and 2) out of the “delicacy”, there is an ethical responsibility to what is being observed. (Robbins 2005) The first aspect leads to the second (at least in a healthy person); and if the second aspect were always observed, there would be no discussion about welfare of laboratory animals and no need for animal advocacy.

To ignore our own, initial, living, responsive relations to living phenomena in our inquiries into their nature is to cut ourselves off from the very spontaneous calls and invitations they exert upon us in their way of coming-into-Being—and thus to deny ourselves the kind of knowledge we need if we are to answer their calls in ways that ‘they can understand’, that are appropriate to their nature. (Shotter 2000) [Emphasis original]

Shotter referred to Goethe’s method as “relationally-responsive” in contrast to conventional science’s “referential-representational” approach to understanding. In the latter we are acting separate from nature and never allow the phenomenon being investigated to “claim” us, and thus we never have any obligation to what is being investigated. In a relationally-responsive understanding “…we allow ourselves to be claimed by phenomena, we open ourselves to feel our relational obligation to them. In other words, we become morally engaged with them. Indeed, when we spend time in deep contemplation of the structure of a plant, for instance, we come to appreciate the plant as an end in itself rather than a mere means. We come to better understand ways that we can live harmoniously with the plant. We sensitive [sic] ourselves to actions that may violate the value of the plant. And through the wisdom we gain, we create a space not only to improve our own lot, but also ways to improve the plant, which we come to understand as an extension of our own existence, indeed, as part of the ground of being that sustains us.” (Robbins 2005) Every bit of this applies to animals as well as any living organism.

Goethe borrowed his manner of observation from the external world, not forcing his own upon it. We tend to view the entire world in one of two ways: from a mechanistic viewpoint that mathematically maps out inter-dependencies and effects; or we see the external world as some secret mystical element. While one or the other may be appropriate for one or another class of objects, we find ourselves in all kinds of errors when we try to apply one or the other to all classes of objects, and become very one-sided in our view; we open ourselves up to forcing constructs upon the object that were never there to begin with. Instead, when we allow the object itself to dictate the manner of observation, as Goethe did, we simply cannot err because the object of the observation will tell us everything we need to know.

These are the philosophical underpinnings with which I approach all aspects of animal welfare and behavior, and, indeed, all aspects of my life.

Philosophy doesn’t ‘stand above’ thought, but unfolds from ‘within’ it. Science, likewise, is a grand enterprise but, in my view, subsists not in totality (as a total explanation of phenomena) but rather in spontaneity (as a way of engaging phenomena). (Goff 2010)

One thought on “Incorporating Goethean Science into Equine Ecology

  1. Pingback: New Places, New Projects | A Horses View

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