Context #1 (Spring,
1999, pp. 3-5); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute
A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing
What, you ask, is The Nature Institute? Good question. We've made repeated
attempts to write the definitive, once-for-all mission statement, and somehow
the essence of the thing always slips through the gaps between the words.
This, of course, isn't really surprising, since The Nature Institute is
a living, developing enterprise. As long as this remains true, it will escape
every effort we make to capture it "once for all."
Stephen L. Talbott
Nevertheless, the effort to catch the vision as best one can is a healthy
one. What follows is certainly not a definitive statement. It is merely
the first of what will probably be a continuing series of reflections
in which we look at The Nature Institute's commitments and activities
from different angles.
Throughout this past century many have sought a new, more contextual, holistic,
and participative science, in which the observer is cognitively and ethically
united with the object of observation. This desire to overcome the alienation
inherent in a fragmented, mechanistic view of the world has turned up everywhere
from systems science to complexity studies to "new age" endeavors, and has
spawned countless interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities.
The rhetoric of wholeness confronts us on all hands.
And yet, the alienation from nature and community runs deep in our culture.
The massive funding, agenda-setting, and research institutions of mainstream
science continue to pursue a compartmentalized and one-sidedly quantitative
knowledge aimed at little more than effective manipulation of the world.
The overwhelming testimony of science and technology, borne in upon us
from all sides, is that we and all other living organisms are mechanisms,
suitable to be tinkered with in the name of abstract, quantitative "values"
such as efficiency.
Clearly, achieving a new science will not be an easy task, even if the
world's health and survival depend upon it. Among other things, the habits
of thought we have acquired over the past several hundred years stand
in the way. They encourage us to seek effective manipulation rather than
understanding -- in other words, blind power. They substitute analyzable
fragments for contexts and wholes. By narrowing our awareness to matters
of instrumentality, they make us subject to unconscious and destructive
drives. They blind us to the qualities of our own lives and the qualities
we are imparting to the world.
It was with the challenge of these habits of thought in mind that the
founders of The Nature Institute articulated the following statement:
Nature around us is whole and interconnected. Though we are
part of nature, we do not yet fathom nature's depths, and our actions
do not embody her wisdom. A fundamental shift in our way of viewing the
world is necessary, if we would contribute to nature's unity rather than
dissolution. At The Nature Institute we seek ways of knowing and doing
that are fashioned after nature's own wholeness. Science becomes a participatory
dialogue with nature, wherein each phenomenon finds its unique, contextual
A New Practice
At The Nature Institute we believe that science can evolve toward a genuine
holism. The demands this places upon the researcher, however, are exceedingly
An attention to qualities. To read nature, rather than
merely to manipulate it, is to reckon with its qualities. It is through
their qualities -- not the mutual exclusiveness of their abstracted "elements"
-- that things declare their distinctive nature and relate to each other.
While measurement can be automated and made easy, the reading of qualities
cannot. The scientific researcher must gain the sensitivity and discrimination
of an artist.
The exploration of context. If nature around us is whole
and interconnected, then every investigation opens outward without predefined
limit. The expressive qualities of things -- like the words in a sentence
-- mutually interpenetrate and influence each other. They are each an
expression of an encompassing whole, and therefore can lead one back to
the whole from which they arose. Every phenomenon can only be understood
in its context.
An inescapable ethical commitment. A nature that is qualitative,
expressive, and whole is a nature ensouled. It is a nature that addresses
us, a nature we must engage in conversation. As in all conversation, the
ethical element is always present, and is not something just tacked on
at the end by asking, "What shall we do with the result of this conversation?"
The conversation itself -- in field and laboratory -- expresses our ethical
respect or disrespect for nature.
A new kind of objectivity. Every scientist must learn
to be rigorous and objective in his or her judgments. But this is not
so easy once we have rediscovered our ties of kinship with, and responsibility
for, nature. It is always tempting to yield to mere sentiment or wishful
thinking, and to mistake one's own soul for the soul of nature. So the
demands for clear judgment and knowledge of self are much greater for
the holistic than for the conventional researcher. As Owen Barfield once
remarked, "Any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects."
But it's a different matter when, having experienced ourselves in the
world and the world in ourselves, we must nevertheless distinguish our
purely individual, subjective tendencies from the surrounding life of
Bearing these responsibilities in mind, The Nature Institute seeks to
provide a home for the practice of a qualitative, contextual science;
to encourage other researchers in the pursuit of such a science; to cultivate
holistic science education; and to present the new science to a larger
public through lectures, publications, workshops, and courses.
Original source: In Context (Spring, 1999, pp. 3-5); copyright
1999 by The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott :: A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing