An interview with Dalia Nassar
This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Dr Dalia Nassar, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. Dalia's work sits at the intersection of the history of German philosophy and environmental philosophy and ethics. Her most recent monograph, Romantic Empiricism: Nature, Art, and Ecology from Herder to Humboldt (Oxford University Press, 2022) investigates the understudied tradition of romantic empiricism, highlights its significance for the development of ecology, and argues for its contemporary relevance in addressing environmental questions and concerns. By showing how romantic empiricists deepened their understanding of nature through artistic skills and tools, Dalia demonstrates the significance of art for knowledge, and highlights how epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics are fundamentally interdependent. Dalia has strong interests in the contributions of women philosophers, and in the ways in which philosophical canon formation has sidelined them. She is co-editor with Kristin Gjesdal of two volumes on women philosophers, including an anthology of primary works titled Women Philosophers in the Nineteenth Century: The German Tradition. Nassar is a co-investigator on the SSHRC (Canada) grant, Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy.
Hello, Dalia, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you
came to be interested in the intersections of philosophy, ethics, art, and nature, personally and/or professionally?
I began studying philosophy because I wanted to understand the world, and this never meant for me shutting off other disciplines—or modes of knowing—including science, art, and literature. What I found so important in philosophy was precisely its ability to take in the insights of other disciplines and critically examine them, and crucially, their methodologies. So philosophy is, from my perspective, a way into lots of fields, an opening to thinking carefully and critically about almost everything. It provides tools to do that—to reflect on our premises, goals and methods.
Of course, philosophy can become introspective or narrow, and fail to critically examine its own tools and premises. This happens when philosophers don’t appreciate or want to know about work done in other areas, or when they constrain philosophy’s focus to a set of very specific questions.
But to me that is not the point at all. While philosophy provides us with the tools for critically analyzing and grasping concepts (and their relation) in a clear and cohesive way, it needs to engage with other disciplines and modes of knowledge in order to a) critically examine itself, and b) expand its own concerns, and develop its tool box.
Ultimately I regard it as part of the philosophical way of life – or attitude – to be open to other disciplines, other modes of knowing, and the questions and problems that they encounter or raise. This is perhaps what has led me to be interested in nineteenth-century philosophy: a period in the history of philosophy in which these disciplinary distinctions did not exist, and where one and the same thinker engaged in empirical research and philosophical theorizing, and also produced artistic works or critically reflected on art. These various activities were not regarded as counter-productive, but as supporting one another.
While I will never achieve the kind of encompassing approach that we find in the nineteenth century, it is an ideal that I regard as exceptionally important. It helps us not lose sight of other disciplines, other modes of knowledge, and encourages us to engage with scientists and artists so as to expand our understanding of the world and our place within it.
These are the reasons that I try to take a more encompassing approach—thinking not only about art or ethics or nature, but all of them together, all the while seeking to learn from other disciplines about how they think about these things.
Your forthcoming book, Romantic Empiricism: Nature, Art, and Ecology from Herder to Humboldt (Oxford University
Press, 2022), explores the relationship between genealogies of German philosophy and the emergence of modern
ecology. What kinds of methodological innovations animate the ideas of the four philosophers whose work you
examine, and how can they help deepen our understanding of nature in this age of planetary unraveling?
When I first began working on this book, I had no idea where I would end. I simply had a sense that there was a distinctive approach to the study of nature that emerged in Germany in the early nineteenth century, that this approach was far more empirically oriented than the traditions we usually think of when we reflect on this time period.
When we think of the nineteenth century, especially the first half, the movements that come to mind are romanticism and idealism. And the popular – as well as scholarly – perception of these movements is that they are highly speculative, systematic in their ambitions, and oriented around the knowing subject.
This is partly true – we can think of Kant, Fichte, even Schelling and Hegel as examples of this tradition. For Kant, nature was “legislated” by the understanding. Schelling was more interested in understanding nature not as a product of the mind, but as self-producing. However, his ambitions were systematic, and so he often sought to “derive” nature from fundamental principles.
But my sense was that these thinkers represented just one tradition
in nineteenth-century German philosophy, and that it was necessary
to be more nuanced in our understanding of what happened at the moment.
This led me to developing the term “romantic empiricism,” because what I
found was that there was a group of thinkers who were far more empirically
oriented. Although they were not naïve, in that they did not overlook the
role of the knowing subject in the production of knowledge, they also
sought to grasp the phenomenon—and importantly remain with the phenomenon.
I emphasize that they wanted to “remain” with the phenomenon, because they recognized that the phenomenon is not a static and finished object, but a living, transforming reality—and that we must continually attend to it, be challenged by it, and allow ourselves to be transformed by what it teaches us. Knowledge, for them, was thus far more dialogical than uni-logical. In the place of Kant’s legislating understanding, we see a phenomenon that guides the knower in ways unforeseen, and places demands on the knower (to transform herself so as to know better). I describe this form of knowledge as “ecological” because it is situated, open, dialogical, and processual.
This was the first insight I came to once I started working on the romantic empiricists. But what I didn’t realize then was just how apt the term “romantic empiricism” actually is for describing this group of thinkers. For I slowly discovered that the romantic empiricists, among whom I count Herder, Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt, recognized the important role of art and aesthetic experience for the expansion of empirical knowledge.
Importantly, what I found was that these thinkers, the romantic empiricists, practiced what they preached. They did not only theorize about the significance of art and aesthetic education, they also used artistic tools and devices, and “schooled” themselves (their perception and understanding) so as to improve their cognitive capacities, through art. And once they did that, they came to new, radical insights—which led to the founding of ecology.
Herder, for instance, used literary devices he developed in his study of historical and literary texts, to speak about the natural world—and in so doing, articulated the notion of “animal world,” preceding Jacob von Üexküll’s idea of Umwelt by some two-hundred years. This animal world was not a static entity, but something that is co-produced with, and reflective of, the animal that inhabits the world.
Goethe, in turn, sought to capture the dynamic and plastic structure of living beings, focusing on plants, as they vividly presented transformation in nature—through the stages of their development. What he realized was that each stage of a plant’s development both approximates what is to come (e.g., the corolla resembles the calyx, or the leaves can assume the form of the petals) and reflects what preceded it (e.g., the petals reflect the leaves). This revealed a unity that emerges in and through the transformations or stages of development, and demonstrated the importance of analogical reflection: by seeing the leaf as the petal or the petal as the leaf, we begin to see continuity, relationality in the midst of transformation and change. Analogy, as Herder also realized, does not collapse difference (as does identity) but rather maintains the two members of the analogy, showing both their difference and similarity at once and thereby allowing us to deepen our understanding of each at the same time.
Humboldt turned to landscape painting to elaborate a new approach to the study of plants, arguing that the scientist must learn from the landscape painter how to see plants together as members of a forest. Like Goethe, he recognizes that it was imperative that scientists developed the capacity to see relationality and continuity—and this did not mean seeing static objects that look exactly like one another, but rather seeing how phenomena approximate, reflect, and depart from one another. Also like Goethe, who took the essay form in new directions so as to enable his readers to see the plant differently, Humboldt developed a new genre—which he called Naturgemälde (nature-painting)––in order to convey his insights about the organism-environment relation, including the human-environment relation. What he wanted to draw out was the extent to which all beings are situated, embodied and actively engaged in their world. And he chose this genre in order to enable readers to see that for themselves—not only in an objectifying and distant way, but also in relation to themselves as embodied and situated beings.
What became apparent, in other words, is that art and artistic tools and experiences play a crucial role in cognition. And if this was the case historically—culminating in the founding of modern ecology in the works of Humboldt—then we have reason to think that it remains the case today. My claim, ultimately, is that we cannot dismiss art or aesthetic experiences and insights, but must consider how they can expand and improve our ways of knowing and being.
This is especially urgent given that our current modes of knowledge—
which we can describe as “objective” or “distant” or “neutral”—appear
to be impotent in the face of the environmental crisis. We know about
climate change, mass extinction, pollution, the rising oceans—but we
don’t seem to act. Or better: we know but we don’t really know. We know
through graphs and numbers, but we don’t know in an embodied, visceral
way. We know only intellectually, not as whole, embodied beings.
This reveals that there is a problem with our way of knowing.
These thinkers offer an alternative approach to knowledge—one that speaks to thinking and seeing, to the intellect and the body, and that thus has the potential to move and motivate us in ways that our current modes of knowing do not.
More recently, you have turned your attention to the ethics and aesthetics of vegetal lifeforms, including plants and
trees. What spurred this particular interest for you, and what kinds of interdisciplinary methodologies are you
deploying in investigating it?
My interest in plants emerged through my work on the romantic empiricists, who were themselves interested in plants. Goethe’s most well-known scientific work was titled, “The Metamorphosis of Plants.” Humboldt developed plant bio-geography and argued that in order to understand a region, we must first understand its vegetal life. Through my research, it became clear to me that plants played a critical role in nineteenth-century thought—and led thinkers to arrive at radical insights about living beings and environments. Why did plants play such a critical role at that moment? What is so distinctive about plant life that resulted in transformations in our thinking about life?
These were the questions that first motivated me to turn to plants, and my first foray into plants came in the form of an examination of how we have historically used plants as metaphors or symbols for reason. What I realized was that the shift in our understanding of plants that took place in the nineteenth century led to a shift in our understanding of ourselves. Plants, in other words, played a determining role in our self-understanding!
But I would say that the biggest jump in my own research came through collaboration with Margaret Barbour, Professor of Plant Physiology at Waikato University in New Zealand. Margaret first approached me, and we met semi-regularly just to figure out what might be points of contact—where we could begin to think together and collaborate. We had no set agenda: we didn’t have a clear question that we thought each of us could simply contribute to. Nor did we have a sense of methodology: do we do philosophy or science or some combination of the two? (And if the latter, then what would that even look like?) None of this was evident to us. We simply met, discussed what we’re thinking about, and sometimes (though not always) shared texts we thought particularly important.
And then at one of these meetings—I vividly remember sitting at the
café outside of the Holme Building at the University of Sydney—
something emerged. We came to the notion of “embodied history”
to describe the distinctive ways in which trees literally embody the
history of their environments. Trees “embody” their history in that
they actually record what took place to them—and to their surroundings—
in their very bodies (through tree rings, but also in their morphology).
I can’t say that one of us came up with this idea on her own: it happened
in conversation, in a very open-ended exchange.
But as soon as it came out, we knew that we hit something, and from that point forward, we began to think carefully about the ways in which trees embody their environments and the implications of this deep embodiment. This led us to write an article that explicates the ways in which trees both reflect their environment and actively transform it, and a second article that thinks through the ethical significance of the embodied history of trees.
When I look back and think about what methodology we used, I would say that it is perhaps closest to what William Whewell described as “consilience”: the advance of knowledge that occurs when apparently unconnected facts are seen to have “jumped together” to form a new theory. It is not the mere sum of facts, but a new perspective or standpoint from which these facts (already known previously) are seen—and in seeing them through this new perspective, we have new knowledge.
This is precisely what happened in our conversation that resulted in the notion of embodied history. We were discussing already established facts, but suddenly saw them in a new way—through our varying expertise, through the combined tools of philosophy and plant science—and this new way of seeing allowed us to understand plants (and trees more particularly) differently, to recognize something that had not been properly or fully recognized.
At the University of Sydney, you teach into a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses – from Kant and
science, to natural philosophy, and environmental philosophy and ethics. In this process, what have you learned
about the environment-related interests, questions, and concerns of students today?
My experience teaching students in philosophy is that the majority are concerned about the environmental crisis, and don’t understand why we have been so inactive, why governments have done so little. They are interested in action, but they are also interested in understanding how we got here, why we let ourselves get here, and in how our modes of knowing—our frameworks, concepts, and attitudes—have played a role in getting us here.
So they are very interested in understanding the history of our relation to the more-than-human world, of how we have conceived of the human being in nature, and they want to develop new frameworks for understanding this relation. Often they are very open to non-European and Indigenous ways of thinking about these questions, and they want to integrate those in their philosophical understanding of the human and more-than-human worlds.
These are philosophy students – so of course they are going to be interested in theorizing and understanding. But I find it nonetheless important that they recognize that what we think – how we conceptualize nature, and ourselves within it – matters, and that these conceptualizations, and forms of thought, do have social and political implications.
So while they are generally invested in activism, they are also invested in what we might want to call a “transformative form of philosophy,” a philosophy that recognizes the potential of thinking to transform our behaviours and actions. And they are interested in understanding where this potential lies, and how thinking itself must transform so as to become transformative.
Finally, Dalia, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying morethanhuman worlds?
I think the one advice I would give is to be attentive, to listen to the world and the demands that it is placing upon us. The appropriate methods, theories, concepts, etc., will emerge out of this attentiveness, this open dialogue with the world. What the environmental crisis teaches us every day is that the frameworks and approaches we have remain inadequate, and we must transform—ourselves as scholars, the ways we go about understanding and conveying reality, and the frameworks and concepts we develop in order to communicate.
This involves taking risks, allowing ourselves to be challenged, and opening
ourselves up to the world and to other perspectives in ways that may at first
be uncomfortable. But it is crucial that we undertake this transformation, a
transformation that will only occur through this process of attending to what
is before us, engaging with it from a variety of perspectives, and opening
ourselves up to new possibilities—frameworks and concepts that we might
have at first dismissed.
What is taking place around us, especially in Australia, is beyond imagination. If our imagination cannot keep up with it, then it seems to me we must find another way by which to make sense of it. Attending, and taking risks with our ways of knowing, seem especially important for this reason.
"We cannot dismiss art or aesthetic experiences and insights, but must consider how they can expand and improve our ways of knowing and being."
"We came to the notion of “embodied history” to describe the distinctive ways in which trees literally embody the history of their environments. Trees “embody” their history in that they actually record what took place to them—and to their surroundings—in their very bodies."
"be attentive, listen to the world and the demands that it is placing upon us."
"These thinkers offer an alternative approach to knowledge—one that speaks to thinking and seeing, to the intellect and the body, and that thus has the potential to move and motivate us in ways that our current modes of knowing do not."