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  • Essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics. Heinrich Boell Foundation, 2012 [1]
  • To read Enlivement in this Wiki, please click here


"Our mono-cultural worldview is literally preventing us from understanding the deeper causes of our multiple crises. Author Andreas Weber gives us a glimpse of the different scientific paradigm now coming into focus. He calls it “Enlivenment,” because the new sciences are revealing organisms to be sentient, more-than-physical creatures that have subjective experiences and produce sense. Weber sees Enlivenment as an upgrade of the deficient categories of Enlightenment thought – a way to move beyond our modern metaphysics of dead matter and acknowledge the deeply creative processes embodied in all living organisms. The framework of Enlivenment that Weber outlines is a promising beginning for all those who stand ready to search for real solutions to the challenges of our future." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/enlivenment-towards-a-fundamental-shift-in-the-concepts-of-nature-culture-and-politics-chapter-?)



Andreas Weber:

"This essay proposes a new perspective on the interplay of nature, humans and economy. It tries to develop a set of alternatives around some basic assumptions our current worldview is built upon. The position taken here will be called "Enlivenment,“1 because its central thesis is that we have to reconsider "life“ and "aliveness“ as fundamental categories of thought. Enlivenment tries to supplement – not to substitute – rational thinking and empirical observation – the core practices of the Enlightenment position – with the "empirical subjectivity“ of living beings, and with the "poetic objectivity“ of meaningful experiences.

I argue that the biggest obstacle to the vexing questions of sustainability (itself a very elastic term with multiple and conflicting meanings) is the fact that science, society and politics have for the last 200 years lost their interest in understanding actual, lived and felt human existence. Scientific progress – and all explanations of biological, mental and social processes – is based on the smallest possible building blocks of matter and systems. It advances through analyses that presume that evolution in nature is guided by principles of scarcity, competition and selection of the fittest. To put it in provocative terms, one could say that rational thinking is an ideology that focuses on dead matter. Its premises have no way of comprehending the reality of lived experience. Should it be so surprising, then, that the survival of life on our planet has become the most urgent problem?

Based on new findings predominantly in biology and economics, I propose here a different view. I argue that lived experience, embodied meaning, material exchange and subjectivity are key factors that cannot be excluded from a scientific picture of the biosphere and its actors. A worldview that can explain the world only in the "third person,“ as if everything is finally a non-living thing, denies the existence of the very actors who set forth this view. It is a worldview that deliberately ignores the fact that we are subjective, feeling humans – members of an animal species whose living metabolisms are in constant material exchange with the world.

In the vision of the world that I propose here, we human beings are always part and parcel of nature. But this nature is much more like ourselves than we might imagine: It is creative and pulsing with life in every cell. It is creating individual autonomy and freedom by its very engagement with constraints. On an experiential level, as living creatures on this animate earth, we can understand or “feel” nature’s forces if only because we are made of them.

I propose here a new approach to understand our “sustainability dilemma” by urging that we embrace a new cultural orientation towards the open-ended, embodied, meaning-generating, paradoxical and inclusive processes of life. To some, this may sound as if I am proposing a new naturalism, the view that everything is composed of natural entities. But if so, it would be a naturalism of second order that takes into account that nature is not a meaning-free or neutral realm, but is rather a source of existential meaning that is continuously produced by relations between individuals, producing an unfolding history of freedom.

This essay is meant as a first step to probe the terrain. It tries to substitute the “bioeconomic principles” that are guiding so many of our economic, political, educational, and private decisions today, with new “principles of enlivenment”. These are based on the observation that we are living in a biosphere, an unfolding process of natural freedom, and that as humans we are not only capable of directly experiencing this aliveness, but we also need to experience it ourselves. The experience of being alive is a basic human requirement that connects us to all living organisms and to “nature” (often misunderstood as something apart from us). Acknowledging this existential need is not only important for the future progress of the biological sciences; it is imperative to our future as a species on an endangered planet. Our inability to honor “being alive” as a rich, robust category of thought in economics, public policy and law means that we do not really understand how to build and maintain a sustainable, life-fostering, or enlivened, society.

Enlivenment is not an arcane historical or philosophical matter but a set of deep ordering principles for how we perceive, think and act. If we can grasp enlivenment as a vision, we can begin to train ourselves to see differently and approach political struggles and policy with a new perspective. The political consequences of adopting such an approach, which I call “policies of enlivenment,” are far-reaching. Embracing a non-dualistic viewpoint allows for more inclusion and cooperation because there is no disjuncture between “rational theory” and social practice; the two are intertwined.

At the same time this perspective allows for a deeper acknowledgment of the unavoidable messiness of life – conflicts, bad timing, shortcomings, etc. – for which rules of negotiation and accommodation have to be cultivated. The freedom that the Enlightenment has sought to advance is the individual’s personal autonomy to be one’s own master. The freedom that the Enlivenment seeks to advance is our freedom as individuals and groups to be “alive-in-connectedness” – the freedom that comes only through aligning individual needs and interests with those of the larger community. Only this integrated freedom can provide the power to reconcile humanity with the natural world." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/enlivenment-towards-a-fundamental-shift-in-the-concepts-of-nature-culture-and-politics-chapter-?)

Other Excerpts


The inherent dangers of this approach

Michel Bauwens:

I have no problem with the above text, and fully agree with the thrust of it: we need to recognize the subjective aspects of the human and of natural beings and reconnect with life and consciousness in our thinking and feeling-thinking about the world.

However, Andreas Weber doesn't stop there, as evidence in his contribution to The Wealth of the Commons book of essays, specifically in the text:

For example, he states that:

- AW: "There is an all-enclosing commons-economy which has been successful for billions of years: the biosphere. ... I wish to argue that nature embodies the commons paradigm par excellence. With that definition I do not only mean that man and other beings have been living together according to commons principles for an overwhelming majority of time. My argument is more complex: I am convinced that ecological relations within nature follow the rules of the commons. "

It is already a problem to define natural processes in terms of an economy, but depending on how you define 'economics', I can live with that.

However, a 'commons economy' seems a dangerous stretch. The Ostrom school, and commons movements after this, have always defined the commons as a common pool resource that is managed by its users, and it stresses the democratic nature (however broadly defined) of that governance. Open access resources that are not governed are not considered as a commons. To argue that "nature", the "biosphere" has such a governance process is a hardy hypothesis, and it is impossible to see how nature's users indeed have such a democratic concert.

In this essay, Weber makes the very valuable point that our conception of nature is derived from the conception of the human in Victorian England, it is with other words, a cultural projection:

- "Charles Darwin, the biologist, adapted that piece of theory which had clearly derived from the observation of Victorian industrial society and applied it to a comprehensive theory of natural change and development. In its wake such concepts as “struggle for existence,” “competition,” “growth” and “optimization” tacitly became centerpieces of our self-understanding: biological, technological, and social progress is brought forth by the sum of individual egoisms. In perennial competition, fit species (powerful corporations) exploit niches (markets) and multiply their survival rate (return margins), whereas weaker (less efficient) ones go extinct (bankrupt). The resulting metaphysics of economy and nature, however, are less an objective picture of the world than society’s opinion about its own premises. ... We can call this alliance between biology and economics an “economic ideology of nature."

In turn, this projection then inspires economic and cutural views of how society should be. I fully agree with this assessment.

Andreas Weber draws on these consequences for the nature of our social organisation:

- "The economic ideology of nature excluded any wilderness from our soul; unenclosed nature which accomplishes itself by itself and which is possessed by no being, made no sense to the liberal mind. No understanding of ourselves and of the world which reaches beyond the principles of competition and optimization can now claim any general validity. It is “nothing but” a nice illusion which “in reality” is only proof of the underlying forces in the struggle for existence. Love reduces itself to choice of the fittest mate; cooperation basically is a ruse in the competition for resources."

But this is not how nature really operates:

- "Nature as such is the paradigm of the commons. Nothing in it is subject to monopoly; everything is open source. The quintessence of the organic realm is not the selfish gene but the source code of genetic information lying open to all. ... Every individual at death offers itself as a gift to be feasted upon by others, in the same way it received its existence by the gift of sunlight. ... In the ecological commons a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationship to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatorship, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher law: over the long run only behavior that allows for productivity of the whole ecosystem."

And in conclusion:

- "The term “commons” provides the binding element between the natural and the social or cultural worlds. To understand nature in its genuine quality as a commons opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in our biological as well as in our social life. If nature actually is a commons, it follows that the only possible way to achieve a productive relationship with it will be an economy of the commons. ... The idea of the commons thus delivers a unifying principle that dissolves the supposed opposition between nature and society/culture. It cancels the separation of the ecological and the social. "

My objection concerns what is missing from this picture and the great danger of a reverse biological determinism.

What is missing from this picture is emergence, i.e. the general idea that new layers of complexity creates new realities and possiblities. Life brings new rules to matter, and so does consciousness, and again so does culture. What this means for me is that human culture and its choices cannot simply be derived from natural laws. Though the human is nature and is embedded in the natural, it also brings a degree of intentional freedom. We can look at nature, but we don't have to accept all that it is. Nature, as Andreas himself acknowledges, is both "competition and cooperation, partnership and predatorship". Human society must decide, and can decide, how it manages these impulses. The commons law (dixit Andreas Weber) of predatorship, doesn't have to be human law. We have to know and recognize our drives, but we socially regulate them. There can be no conscious regulation of nature outside of the human. The commons is not a natural law, it is a human law, it is a human vision of how society and resources can be regulated, amongst other choices. Nature has no property, but humans do, and therefore we must choose when and how to apply it. We cannot simply say, nature will tell us. If nature tells us predatorship is the way, we can say no. To say nature is a commons is a reverse naturalism, a anti-Darwinism. This is the fatal weakness of the position of Andreas Weber. It criticizes, correctly, social Darwinism, but then takes our current human discoveries, that nature is also a cooperative system, and that we can organize our resources as commons, as 'characteristics of nature', projects them onto nature, and then concludes, "haha, nature is a commons, so human society must be a commmons". The truth is, both nature and society is diverse, and we must observe, know nature and ourselves, and make, if we can, democratic decisions about how to organize ourselves. This was the project of the Enlightenment, and as Andreas Weber observes, it was one-sided and had its dark sides. In this sense, Enlivement is a necessary complement. But not an enlivement that practices a reverse projection mechanism."

More Information

Origin of the Concept

  • coined by Heike Löschmann of Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, an informal talk in the presence of the author, on November 15, 2012.