A Philosophy of Vitality: Meaning, Interpretation, and Ecology in the Work of Charles Taylor and Gregory Bateson

A Philosophy of Vitality: Meaning, Interpretation, and Ecology in the Work of Charles Taylor and Gregory Bateson

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The ecological crisis manifests a crisis of the moral imagination. The ways we think about who we are, what is important and valuable, and the existential meaning of human being shape and steer the practices degrading the ecological health of the plane. Specifically, the dualism typical of Western thought problematically divides the world between an objective world and a subject mind that knows or represents that world. This dualism occludes the way in which reality is both discovered and created by a distributed network of what we might call sensemaking structures or (more poetically) vitalities. Though we will explicate this alternative to dualism more fully below, we can suggest here a reality comprised not of stuff but instead networks of interpretation. Most importantly, we will understand interpretation as a process that both reflects and enacts/creates reality.

We can see the problematic dualism reflected in how various value systems take one thing as the objective, self-sufficient, independent reality. Traditional theism takes an omnipotent, person-like God as the source of all meaning. The moral or the good is reduced to fidelity towards God and cannot fully appreciate the dynamic, distributed, emergent, interactive, organic processes bringing our world into existence. Viewing the world as merely the reflected glory of God, theists have great difficulty attaching moral significance to the world itself or in viewing ecological impact as moral issue.

Secular humanism objectifies the human individual as the repository of all value, and ots morality pertains solely to individual authenticity and to interactions among individuals. Nature exists as merely a natural resource with no inherent value. Secular humanists have great difficulty articulating the value of humans as part of a larger whole. The good of nature exists as merely something we might subjectively value. It per se can make no claims on us.

Note also that an Earth First! rhetoric or deep ecology perspective encounters a similar problem. In objectifying nature as the ultimate reality, humanity is reduced to a derivative reality. Thus ecoism has difficulty justifying human being as a moral good given the amount of ecological devastation human being causes. If we imagine a pristine, independent nature as the ideal, then we have great difficulty articulating how humans add more value than they destroy. Further, ecoism has trouble recognizing other values we typically endorse as good, such as human rights, equality, freedom, etc..

Overcoming these dualisms requires integrating our 1st and 3rd person perspectives. Charles Taylor locates this paradox at the heart of Western modernity. 1 In celebrating the self-responsible, efficacious subject who can come to know/master her domain, we embrace a first person perspective. In enacting this perspective, however, we encounter human being as a phenomenon – we encounter ourselves as something to be objectified and objectively explained. But doing so violates our subjective sense of ourselves as free-choosing individuals with intrinsic worth. From this dualism emerges two camps – those who would reduce/objectify human being (modernists) and those who would privilege the subjective, first person perspective as primary (post-modernists). Thus we see two warring camps: natural-science reductionists who would reduce all meaning to brain chemicals and literary or philosophical scholars who see all the world as a text with no interpretations better than others. We are reduced to either subjects or objects and fail to integrate the two perspectives.

Sensemaking vitalities

Dissolving the paradox lies in recognizing knowing not as a way to represent reality but as the constitutive structure of reality itself. We can facilitate this shift with the language of sensemaking. When I make sense of something I engage in both a subject act of creation and an objective recognition of reality. Sensemaking blends discovery and creation. Other “hinge” terms similarly swing between an objective and subjective perspective. To articulate an idea is to pull together disparate pieces into a larger whole in a way that merges discovery and creation. Similarly to form an impression of something is to both create a meaning and yet to feel impressed upon by something we discover beyond ourselves. When we judge the import of an event we recognize what the event means to us and yet simultaneously recognize that the significance is not merely subjective – something has been imported. To realize means both to recognize an extant reality or to obtain a result through some creative act.

A sensemaking perspective generalizes this discovery/creation dynamic and recognizes interpretation more generally as the fundamental phenomenon of reality. For example, Heidegger observes that language is not something we merely use – something over which we have complete control. In some sense, language speaks. In some sense language lives through an interpretive community as a vitality in its own right, and we are just the means language uses to express itself. Similarly, an ideal can emerge from a subjective statement but then transcend that act of locution. To observe that “all men are created equal” both reflects reality and (over time and practice) helps inflect reality. The ideal represented here both interprets other ideals and practices and so comes to reflect/create a different meaning. Though less than an objective fact, it lives as more than a subjective projection. Over time it has grown beyond what its original expression entailed. If we think about any sensemaking structure as having this vital, living-like quality, we can understand all interpretive processes (broadly understood) as vitalities. For example, within ecological systems we can understand a species as a vitality. A species represents a particular genetic code and expression of that code interpreting its environment. The interpretation both reflects and inflects the environment – the species interweaves the ecosystem it interprets. Additionally, the ecosystem as a whole constitutes an ongoing interpretation of its constituting species, weather patterns, soil conditions, and infinite interactions, and thus lives as a vitality in its own right

In short, a philosophy of vitality envisions a distributed network of realities realizing reality. Such a systems theory view recognizes entities as recursively constituted through interlocking acts of interpretation. In identifying the basic element as a vitality, we recognize a sensemaking structure that both “makes sense” – has some level of recognizable internal coherence sustainable over time – and one that “makes sense” – contributes generatively to a larger whole. All sensemaking structures both interpret and are interpreted. This philosophy rejects a static foundationalism or essentialism central to the theistic, humanistic, and ecoistic viewpoints – there is no objective reality outside interpretation. As in an evolutionary perspective, realities/vitalities emerge in time, live, change, and die in a holistic, interactive, monistic whole.

Such a shift of view dramatically shifts the meaning of meaning and workings of our moral imagination. To flesh out the implications we draw on the work of two different thinkers. Charles Taylor articulates a way of thinking about how Western identity interleaves with a particular set of moral sources. Challenging our atomistic construal of the self, he paints an alternative interpretation of liberal politics and modern thought that makes great progress in escaping dualism. Then, from an ecological perspective, we will consider the work of Gregory Bateson and his effort to relate mind and nature as part of a larger monistic whole.

Charles Taylor

In his Sources of the Self Taylor argues our identity emerges against/within/through a set of moral sources available to us in our cultural condition. 2 Reviewing the history of Western modernity, Taylor points to three basic sources – traditional Christian theism, the critical Enlightenment, and Romantic Expressivism. He argues that these traditions are so deeply interwoven into our shared culture that we cannot avoid constituting our identity against/within these sources. More specifically, we will incorporate notions like individual dignity, self-responsible autonomy, disengaged critical reasoning, authentic self-expression and self-discovery, and benevolence in our self-understandings. He rejects the more atomistic, reductionistic, Lockean “punctual” self capable of choosing every aspect of its identity. Rather Taylor insists we find ourselves always already attached to some background of significance that exceeds our complete understanding and our ability to chose. Note however that the moral sources are emergent phenomena, dynamically sustained through the aggregated interpretative practices and enactments of individual agents and communities. Further, the meaning and relevance of moral sources shift/develop/diminish relative to changes in other moral sources. For example, though originally derived from a Christian worldview, the notion of individual dignity has come to include the opportunity for authentic and unique self-expression given the influence of the romantic-expressive tradition. The rise of multiculturalism reflects this inflection.

Taylor highlights the role of articulation in developing and realizing moral sources. 3 Moral sources are not simply created out of thin air nor are they simply discovered. The interpretive processes exercised by individuals and communities realize the moral sources and sustain them. Note that neither the individual agent nor the moral sources exist as independently, objective realities. Rather both emerge as dynamically constituted realities recursively dependent upon the other. I believe we can thus interpret the individual agent, moral sources, and the entire system of interaction as three types of vitality – different yet intimately related networks of sensemaking. From the perspective of moral philosophy, the good then is not an objective reality that a subject can know. Rather, the good is an emergent property of this dynamic, multi-leveled, interpretive process. The good is neither an objective standard nor a subject projection. Taylor’s system does not eliminate moral dilemmas or conflicts (moral sources can contradict one another, different articulations can develop conflicting themes), but it does escape the dualisms that would make us understand moral sources as either something to be discovered objectively (as in modernism) or something to be created (as in post-modernism).

Let us note in passing that such a framework offers greater potential for inspiring an ecologically-minded moral imagination. At the most basic level, Taylor’s framework shows how goods reside not in individual humans but in a broader dynamic network. Though Taylor does not emphasize the relation between moral sources and non-human nature, one can surmise that moral sources are interpreted and interwoven throughout natural systems. The ideal of disengaged reason both inspires science and is sustained by scientific practices through its success at explicating natural phenomenon. Taylor’s framework also challenges the tendency of mainstream humanistic political thought to take individual rights or autonomy as the only essential good and to thereby delegitimize the sort of communal solidarity needed to resist the atomizing logic of capitalism and consumption. 4 Taylor’s system reframes self-responsible autonomy as an emergent moral source realized in modernity and sustained through its relation to other goods, such as the ideal of self-rule from the republican tradition. Taylor rejects the notion of a primordial, ontological autonomy. We only realize goods to the extent that they resonate within a larger network of meaning, and that network transcends any atomistic delusions of self-sufficiency. In short, the good of freedom only makes sense in the context of other goods. Without complementary moral sources freedom itself ceases to be a good. Rather than drive us to seek meaning in demonstrations of our self-sufficient, rugged individualism, Taylor’s framework suggests we experience the most meaning through deeper engagement and attunement. Rather than seek an objective anchor of the good (a self-sufficient God, self, or nature), Taylor’s framework suggests the need for cultivating/articulating/realizing a dynamic constellation of goods dynamically enacted through our interpretative practices. We have richer meaning to the extent that we have multiple, interlocking references rather than a single perfect anchor.

At an even more fundamental, existential level, Taylor’s framework suggests that our identity is not a fixed entity essentially equivalent to duration of our bodily experience. Identity becomes a fundamentally dynamic, sensemaking process interwoven within/through a larger field of meaning. By identifying with lager causes, principles, communities, and natural systems we do not dilute our essential self – rather we can experience an ego-transcending identification/interwoven-ness with larger dynamic vitalities. We need not retreat further inward to find our true self. Rather, we can displace our existential anxiety by shifting our focus to the way in which our lives vitalize and enact larger goods. This of course depends upon the availability of communities and practices the can enable such an orientation, and this requires an imaginative hermeneutics of recovery to identify and articulate that which integrates us into a larger field of meaning. As just one example, for all its flaws, tendencies toward absolutisms, and obsession with sin, the Christian church as enacted in civil rights era Black America offered meaning for individuals who might otherwise have had little sense of hope or larger purpose. The support was not merely rhetorical or spiritual. The Black church provided a sociopolitical infrastructure for educated leadership independent of White power and the cross-class sharing of private cars that enabled bus boycotts. And as Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated in his last speech, such a community enables a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good in a way that radically transcends the isolated, atomistic, self-centered identity that so haunts our modern capitalist-consumerist culture.

Gregory Bateson

Whereas Taylor recursively relates individual agency and emergent moral sources, the ecologist-anthropologist Gregory Bateson recursively relates such human knowing to evolutionary theory and ecology. 5 Bateson can help relate the implicit evolutionary/ecological logic of Taylor’s thought to the actual evolutionary/ecological context in which mind emerges. Fundamentally, both are recursive thinkers, focused on interpretive, sensemaking processes, striving to work through the fundamental confusions of dualism. If successful, they help recenter and reenvision our moral imagination and give us a new way of understanding ourselves and the meaning of our lives.

Bateson asserts that evolutionary theory, the mind/body problem, and epistemology form one subject of discourse – engaging one implicates the others. 6 Epistemology emerges as a branch of natural history. 7 He sees epistemology and evolution as similar processes operating at different levels of logical typing. Evolution tests phenotype through trial and error, and thinking is another trial and error testing, stochastic process nested within phenotype. 8 So Bateson strives to naturalize human epistemology as a real evolutionary force rather than as an external Platonic lens capable of objectively picturing reality. Distinct interests drive our representation of reality, and this instrumentality interweaves our epistemology.

Bateson rejects the Cartesian view of mind as the fundamental reality – either as the force behind nature or the capacious, self-sufficient tool for grasping nature. Rather he argues that post-Darwin we must see mind as a phenomenon created and shaped by nature. As with any other natural process, natural selection contours conscious processes in a way that directly enhances reproductive fitness, and thus produces a perspective poorly equipped to anticipate or appreciate systemic, cumulative, aggregate, long-term consequences (e.g., the causes and consequences of global warming). Selective pressures also pre-wire all species to over-produce offspring. Having escaped the pressures constraining other species, human population is exploding. Our narrowly focused consciousness unleashes a potent transforming force when leveraged by self-reinforcing technological creations, further exacerbating our potential to destabilize ecosystems. Having an epistemology ill-prepared to comprehend systemic consequences, we find ourselves hurtling towards environmental collapse without the ability to comprehend/appreciate the problem. 9

Rather than merely recognizing the danger of technology, Bateson’s evolutionary perspective thus traces the problem back to human epistemology itself. Given an ecological understanding of epistemology, we can see how many of our corruptions of nature (pesticides, fossil fuel engines, freeways) are, paradoxically, entirely natural. The problem is not the technologies but the underlying dualism that presents us from seeing our intelligence as part of the problem. Bateson deftly merges the ecological and epistemic by labeling this pattern of thought pathological. 10 By “pathological” Bateson suggests a phenomenon like a virus. The virus makes sense of its host in a way that works for itself, but in a way that doesn’t make sense for the infected organism. The virus is pathological in that its process is effective and yet damaging. Bateson’s framing of epistemology suggests how mistakes often become self-propagating (like an effective virus) rather than self-correcting because the epistemology can corrupt or co-opt the larger system. He viewed the various forms of dualistic thinking – mind-body, mind-matter, God-world – as the “multiple insults” corrupting our epistemology and “sending us into a false cult of the ego.” 11

As with Taylor, one can read Bateson as a moral philosopher. Both try to explicate the way in which we make moral sense of our lives, Taylor by looking at the emergence of the modern self, Bateson by looking at our evolutionary history. One can even read Bateson as a sort of religious thinker, resisting the “false cult of the ego” and seeking instead the “eternal verities,” the “pattern which connects,” and the “sacred union.” 12 Yet he seeks these truths in a way that accepts his situated finitude, his creaturely embeddedness. He admits that whether the eternal verities he seeks are “true forever apart from our opinions, I cannot know.” 13 (MN 206). Bateson won’t presume to stand outside the system. Our ideas are always part of the system – not an independent representation. It is true that through the “self-validating power of ideas” the world partly becomes, “how it is imagined.” 14

In the language of sensemaking, Bateson presents the entire evolving world as a sensemaking system, a vitality in its own right, something for which he has deep reverence. And yet, by drawing such incisive parallels between evolution, epistemology, and mind, he shows human being as a nested vitality with tremendous sensemaking capacity of tremendous moral consequence. Bateson’s thinking connects the logic of Taylor’s moral sources with a deeper evolutionary logic of who we are. We are part of something larger, and yet not in a derived, reductive sort of way, because our human epistemology explicates and enacts the evolutionary dynamic in a particularly powerful way. Bateson’s view both makes us at home in the world and yet alerts us to our entwinement with a sort of intra-worldly transcendence. As a religious thinker, Bateson suggests that there is a fallen, sinful path of being, and yet gestures toward a life-saving attunement with a field of meaning far richer than any objectified anchor could offer.

Vitalities and the Moral Imagination

So how does a philosophy of vitality enrich the moral imagination? We began by suggesting Theism, Humanism, and Ecoism express variants of dualism by objectifying some fundamental element as the repository of value. Rather than value some element, a philosophy of vitality would value the generative capacity of any dynamic complexity. Taylor for example values the generative capacity of liberal politics of modernity. Taylor sees modernity as helping to realize moral sources like the dignity of the individual, individual rights, Romantic-Expressivism, and self-responsible autonomy. Note however Taylor values a dynamic nexus of moral sources, and strongly rejects attempts to reduce liberal politics and modernity to the ideal of individual autonomy. Taylor argues that a respect for autonomy and rights alone fragments the sort of republic necessary to realize that autonomy. Taylor draws on the republican tradition, emphasizing the ideal of self-rule. 15 Love of the republic elicits the commitment and sacrifice necessary to sustain the sort of republic which enables individual autonomy. A special kind of devotion, this love is more than mere self-serving devotion and yet less expansive than universal benevolence. Taylor suggests that an anthropological (or empirical) appreciation of human history suggests that the ideal of universal benevolence lacks the strength of more immediate loyalties needed to sustain the republic. Note then that Taylor does not take autonomy or liberty as the natural state of affairs, an objective reality we need only recognize. Liberty is an emergent good, sustained only within a particular nexus of generative complexity that includes other goods and sustaining interpretive practices.

Similarly, Bateson values evolution and ecology for their generative capacity. Bateson does not reduce nature to carrying capacity, nor does he value it as a static, stable, external good. Bateson believes a certain aesthetic sense is required to appreciate the complex interwoven pattern, 16 and understands our own thinking about nature as a part of nature that both manifests and extends its rich value. There is something about the pulsing, dynamic, interweaving and interleaving, shifting and sorting of nature – its capacity to evince emergent wonders – that evokes Bateson’s awe, respect, wonder, and reverence. Both Taylor and Bateson value these abstract, interlocking, dynamic vitalities that make sense of reality and also make reality. We are called by their work to recognize generative complexity and to value its capacity. This does not mean either would disavow the rights of a specific person or the beauty of a specific animal, but they clearly want us to value more than just the elements themselves.

As a point of contrast, consider how much of the implicit logic of moral philosophy traces back to our atomistic construal of value. We can read Kant, who sets the frame of such reasoning, as explicating the axiological consequences of Descartes’ dualism. Descartes centers reality on the individual human mind knowing the objectified world. Kant thus takes autonomous rationality as the fundamental criterion for moral worth – the only phenomenon with intrinsic value. All else is relegated to contingent value dependent upon the human subject. Consequently, we are left with a way of thinking that respects human rights but can’t quite reconcile this absolute with the value of anything else. 17 Both Taylor and Bateson escape this absolutism by adopting a dynamic, multi-leveled, emergent understanding of meaning. Meaning is sustained dynamically and relationally rather than in reference to a static anchor like self, God, or nature.

A philosophy of vitality moves beyond an atomistic construal of being and beckons us to the embrace the moral worth of a wider and more diverse scope of sensemaking systems. Consider how we think about dwelling and the daily use of technology. An atomistic construal sees individual human beings making choices to use discrete technological tools such as cars. We might instead see the car as part of a larger sensemaking system linking an atomistic epistemology, low-density suburban living, and an 80 million barrel per day oil habit. We can question the atomized epistemology that fancies the car as an expression of freedom and our unique individuality. A richer epistemology would see a pathology not under our control but rather expressing us as inputs for a complex global warming device – a pathology to be sure.

Committed to an atomistic epistemology, we do not see the pattern which connects. We see discrete individuals encountering the discrete problems of obesity, child-care, long commutes, lack of exercise, diminished social capital, unhealthy foods, asthma, traffic fatalities, and inadequate incomes. We could instead imagine a non-pathological vitality, and articulate the moral ideal of a better community. Rather than attempting to overpower and overcome nature with the internal combustion engine, we could redesign our cities to work with rather than against nature. We can imagine the moral good of dense, mixed-use, mixed-income, public-transportation-oriented developments with shared public spaces, regional heating and cooling, food co-ops, and local, community supported agriculture. 18 We could articulate a politics that celebrates individualism but that rejects the most damaging forms of consumption. We can celebrate freedom but also the generative capacity evoked by the ideal of self-rule. The technologies are available, but we need to articulate a moral and political vision that moves beyond a simplistic celebration of freedom and defense of rights. In short, a philosophy of vitality can help us recognize the moral significance of city design – not only for its ability to reduce ecological damage but also for its ability to enable a richer quality of human being. We can imagine and value a city as a good in itself, as a unique vitality with rich generative potential.

In short, a philosophy of vitality encourages us to step beyond an atomistic myopia in which other vitalities besides individual humans make sense of the world and reveal moral consequence in their vitality. It encourages us to think more deeply about the way in which moral sources come into being and are sustained over time, and to look for a deeper sense of kinship through the patterns which connect.


Bateson, Gregory. “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and

Epistemology, 426-39. San Francisco,: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972.

———. Mind and Nature : A Necessary Unity. 1st ed. New York: Dutton, 1979.

———. “Pathologies of Epistemology.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology
486-95. San Francisco,: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972.

Bateson, Gregory, and Rodney E. Donaldson. A Sacred Unity : Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation : The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. 1st ed. New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Dworkin, R. M. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity : Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.,: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Taylor, Charles. “Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere.” In Philosophical Arguments, 257-87. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

———. Sources of the Self : The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.


1 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self : The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 175-76.

2 Ibid., 3-107.

3 Ibid., 91-107.

4 R. M. Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.,: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).

5 Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature : A Necessary Unity, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 1979).

6 Gregory Bateson and Rodney E. Donaldson, A Sacred Unity : Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 175.

7 Ibid., 271.

8 Ibid., 182-3.

9 Gregory Bateson, “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (San Francisco,: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972), 426-39.

10 Gregory Bateson, “Pathologies of Epistemology,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology
(San Francisco,: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972), 486-95.

11 Bateson and Donaldson, A Sacred Unity : Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 224.

12 Ibid.

13 Bateson, Mind and Nature : A Necessary Unity, 206.

14 Ibid., 205.

15 Charles Taylor, “Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

16 Bateson and Donaldson, A Sacred Unity : Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 170.

17 Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity : Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 15-18.

18 Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation : The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, 1st ed. (New York: North Point Press, 2000).