In the fortnight since I wrote this paper I’ve been subjected to radical satirical alterations to what I think is an appropriate metaphysical position to hold.
Two weeks ago, I sort of thought this, though. I wrote it for this symposium, Spaces of Attunement, which was fantastic. I felt as though I made contact with my tribe and will be following Authority Research Network with great interest.
This paper is based on a book I wrote last year about the Green Man, an image that looks a bit like this or this that you may or may not be familiar with. I’m going to begin with an email from a man called Graeme who replied to a request I put out to a web community called The Company of the Green Man:
I saw your request for information about the concept of the green man and how it fits in to modern peoples life.
I thought i would tell you what it means to me.
I have a green man image in each room of my house and a half sleeve tattoo of a green man on my arm.
It may seem that I am a bit odd but to me the green man is a symbolic link of man to his origin as a natural animal, with trees and foliage being the symbol of nature and it’s all encompassing presence.
The general assumption that we are the highest order of animal is tamed by being drawn back to natures stages of life, birth, youth, fertile adulthood self sacrificing to our offspring, old age and decay then death.
From here I like to think we will be like other forms of nature and are reborn anew in the next season or cycle.
The image of a man formed from foliage is a blend of him as an animal but still strongly part of nature.
The reason for so many images around the house is to hopefully remind us of our origin and not to be so arrogant to assume we are superior to all other forms of life. Also I like the images of the green man and if I am way out it does no harm as it is a positive feeling toward nature.
I am not sure if this rambling makes any sense or is of any use to you but as the ideal is wishful thinking on my behalf I just thought it may be of use.
All the best with your work,
It turns out that there are lots of people like Graeme. It happened that two of my other interviewees for the book, the writer and Dark Mountain founder Paul Kingsnorth and the Oysterband singer John Jones, also had sleeve tattoos of the Green Man, and I wonder whether, if I’d been more assiduous in my research, and maybe asked everyone to strip off, I’d have found more.
The reason that people are interested in the Green Man is that, like Graeme, they see in him an interface between the human and the non-human sphere. The Green Man is, therefore, a locus, a place, of attunement. What I hope to show in the brief time I have this morning is that today’s understanding of the Green Man demonstrates a metaphysical position that is becoming less unfashionable, and that offers a better basis for understanding and dealing with the consequences of the Anthropocene, than the materialism, or physicalism, that currently passes for common-sense in most academic and public discourse.
The twentieth century was the first time that materialism, or physicalism – the idea that there is a mind-independent reality made out of bits of stuff – was the default metaphysical basis for understanding how the world works. There are good reasons for this. It works very effectively as a way of both understanding the relations between things in the world and of intervening in the world. I’m using some fantastically complicated bits of technology right now and describing them and their development as a mind-dependent experiential construct isn’t going to sound too convincing.
This physicalism isn’t great at describing consciousness, though. There is a movement within analytic philosophy of mind towards doing away with the notion of mind, or consciousness, altogether, describing it solely as an emergent property of a complex system.
To describe the sorts of things that most people agree to be forms of life existing as an outcome of consciousness has been considered pretty bonkers and heretical in mainstream academic philosophy. It’s teleological. It’s anthropomorphic.
There is an irony in the deep anthropocentrism required to tag any assertion of non-human consciousness as anthropomorphic. There are all sorts of perceptual traps we can fall into when trying to impose models of how things work onto the world around us, but finding evidence of consciousness in other things doesn’t seem to be a particularly dangerous one. Unless, of course, it besets an ethical framework that justifies the neoliberal exploitation of all non-human stuff.
Out there in the lay world, physicalism or materialism was married to an assumption that, if we’re going to generalise, we could describe as Cartesian in its origin, that mind and matter are different things. The stuff out there in the world exists and science can tell us how it interacts and behaves, because it does so in an entirely predictable and mechanistic way. Mind, or human consciousness, is an exception to this mechanistic universe, because it exists in God’s image. It is a rather magical explanation.
This set of assumptions has characterised Western industrial thought. Cartesianism worked for the Enlightenment project, facilitating a way of explaining the properties and interactions of physical objects in the world, and it also worked for the Church.
Cartesian dualism creates a metaphysical basis for a worldview in which human privilege is mediated by the existence of God, and thus to some degree by the Church. Human privilege, the idea of stewardship and the ownership it implies over the other, mechanical bits of Nature, exists because human consciousness is of God. It forms a natural hierarchy.
Compare this with Spinoza’s metaphysics in the Ethics. When I first came across the phrase Deus, sive Natura – God, or Nature – in isolation I assumed, like everyone seems to have assumed since the Romantics, that Spinoza was a pantheist. In fact, having read the Ethics, it looks more as though he’s an atheist materialist whose particular conception of materialism is a form of dual-aspect or neutral monism. It makes it look more as though using the phrase God or Nature is a way of inserting the tag God into an explanation of Nature that is so relentlessly naturalistic as to become apophatic.
Without going into Spinoza’s additional attacks on doctrine, this was not a good story for the Church. Cartesian materialism creates a hierarchy between the human sphere, in which consciousness and will exist in a God-mediated fashion, and the rest of nature which is mindless, soulless and mechanical. Spinoza overturns this othering of nature: in Spinoza, nature is everything and everything is nature and we are of it, not apart from it. All that Cartesian magic privilege of godly humans being in charge gets ditched.
If Spinoza really is a pantheist, it is such a reductive form of pantheism that it becomes indistinguishable from an atheistic conception of materialism. However, even if you see Spinoza’s metaphysics in an atheistic light, his conception of determinism is tied into the notion of conatus, a striving for existence that characterises all life and all matter. He is a materialist, just as Descartes is a materialist, but he is a panpsychist materialist.
Panpsychism is the position that consciousness is a universal feature of all things. Academic philosophers are fantastically nitpicky about policing the limits of what bits of terminology mean, but I’m going to go crazy and use panpsychism as an umbrella term to take in forms of pantheism, panentheism and animism, because it does a good job of describing a common quality, namely universal consciousness, and it offers a secular description of it in a sphere often complicated by religious and spiritual factionalism.
There are, therefore, two main options for overcoming the Cartesian human consciousness privilege. You need to be consistent: either everything is conscious, as most of the history of philosophy would have it, from Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics through most Eastern philosophy to the various forms of idealism that characterised much of nineteenth century Western thought.
Alternatively, nothing is. But so far the best explanation we have for that is that if we can’t explain consciousness adequately as an emergent phenomenon, it must either not be a thing or it’s something best ignored by the analytic philosophy that dominates the academy.
And, besides, even if you view the physicalist-reductionist position as one that works, what it doesn’t do is offer a basis for a biocentric ethics; to the contrary, it offers a basis for an anthropocentric free-for-all in which all stuff in the world is made out of mind-inert matter of varying degrees of complexity and is therefore fair game to be used and destroyed as required.
Furthermore, what academic philosophers think about metaphysics and ethics and what sort of relationship there might be between one’s metaphysical position and the sort of ethics that position facilitates does not appear, beyond the occasional pop-philosophy book, to have much of an impact on how the rest of us think about these things.
Schopenhauer was famously dismissive of what he called folk metaphysics, or popular metaphysics, or other variants of it. He took an elitist line in which there was a distinction between faith-based religious belief, which involved a blind submission to the discourse of religious and social authority, and rational philosophy, which could be cultivated through educated reflection.
Regardless of what one might think of these distinctions in Schopenhauer’s contemporary context, we now find ourselves, at least in the West, in a rather different situation. Our situation is one in which the hold of organised religion has collapsed into a largely secular society, and in which the academy has remained hierarchical, and perhaps even become more hierarchical and authoritarian in nature, so that it is no longer possible to draw straightforward distinctions regarding which institutions are most powerful in mediating our philosophical understanding of the world.
You could go further, and argue that the institutional status and privilege of the academy drives a conservatism towards challenges to academic normative discourse. In philosophy, the accepted discourse over the last century has been within the domain of analytic philosophy, and has tended overwhelmingly towards a physicalist ontology. It is a field in which the pursuit of metaphysics is currently still overwhelmingly regarded as meaningless. When you look back over time, though, this current trend towards a physicalist ontology seems a little arbitrary.
As recently as the late nineteenth century, a form of panpsychist monism was the default academic metaphysical position. You see it in post-Hegelian idealism in the likes of F H Bradley, you see it in early pragmatists like James and Schiller. You see it, a little later, in Bergson. It is notable that the Society for Psychical Research, which sounds hopelessly woo-woo by the standards of today’s academy, was chaired in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by James and Bergson among others, most of whom were academic physicists, philosophers or physiologists. If your metaphysical position is devoid of mind outside some emergentist understanding of consciousness, psychical research sounds a bit weird, because you’re researching something that doesn’t exist.
However, if your metaphysical position is one in which mind is a constituent part of material existence, it’s less weird. Even Russell, the most notable proponent of logical positivism at the turn of the century, defaulted to a Jamesian form of neutral monism in the end that contemporary metaphysicians, such as David Skrbina and Philip Goff, would include in the panpsychist tent.
Over the last decade, panpsychism has seen a small resurgence. Galen Strawson’s 2006 paper, ‘Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism,’ was significant in seeing an analytic philosopher adopt a panpsychist position on the basis of it offering a neater and more coherent account of consciousness. David Skrbina, who is perhaps better known for his ongoing dialogue with Theodor Kaczynski, the Unabomber, has written extensively about panpsychism, and his most recent book, the Metaphysics of Technology, offers a fully realised panpsychist metaphysics upon which he proposes a more biocentric ethics, among other things. Philip Goff, who like Skrbina is driven by a strong political and environmental ethics, sets out a position that he describes as cosmopsychism in a new book.
But this is far from forming the mainstream of academic thought, let alone lay thought. And the extent to which academic discourse influences lay discourse, REF impact assessments aside, is often dubious.
At the same time, the collapse of organised religion in the West has left the path open for more disparate and fragmented belief systems, both secular and spiritual. I propose that we see this collapsed hierarchy, this fragmentation, as a strength.
One of the common factors of these belief systems, when you unpack them, is a metaphysical position roughly analogous to the old-school panpsychist monism I outlined earlier. It rejects anthropocentric privilege, like Graeme the Green Man enthusiast did in his email. It opens the way for a rhizomatic, disparate, messy folk metaphysics that is largely panpsychist in character, and that might better facilitate a biocentric starting point for a new post-Anthropocene ethics.
This new folk panpsychism is many-stranded. Some of those right-wing Christians in the States are probably right when they identify yoga as a form of creeping Hindu or broadly pagan spirituality. You can go to a pretty mainstream yoga class and be invited to connect with Oneness at the end.
There are trademarked shamanic training courses these days, in a weird elision of late capitalism and an inchoate drive towards a panpsychist cosmography. These vary greatly – some seize on what they consider to be authentic traditions, Siberian-style drumming and Anglo-Saxon conceptions of the great tree of life, Yggdrasil, and the like – and some whose focus is more secular and meditative, but attains the same ends.
But it doesn’t even need to be as structured as that. Most contemporary neopagans have a conception of animism and what their individual godheads mean that is basically fictionalist and metaphorical. They are used as spaces of attunement, just as much of the iconography in Tibetan Buddhism is used as a mode of attunement. It is an easier way in for most people than the often very dry apophatic techniques of Zen Buddhism or, for that matter, reading hundreds of pages of Deleuze.
Even the Church of England is getting in on this, or bits of it are at the edges. I interviewed a local vicar who was known as “the pagan priest” and it turned out that he channelled a pantheistic – in fact, panentheistic – conception of God through reclaiming some of the practices and liturgies of ancient Celtic Christanity.
And this is where the Green Man comes in.
People who don’t profess to be Celtic Christians or Buddhists or yogis or pagans or shamans and who are even wary of using the term “spiritual” have an affinity for the Green Man. You can be an atheist and be into the Green Man. You can also be a neopagan and be into the Green Man; indeed, at Avebury on solstice morning last summer there was a Green Man taking part in neopagan rituals. I met a respectable suburban professional from Croydon who dressed up as the Green Man with his morris side, I had a brief email conversation with a tech entrepreneur and activist who identified as GreenMan, I tallied up the Green Man T-shirts on real-ale drinkers in rural Shropshire.
The disparate nature not only of the lifestyles but of the overall cosmographies and belief structures of the people who use the Green Man as their space of attunement has a lot of merit if you want to find a means of interfacing with the non-human world without the power structures of established religion.
This time last year I fell into writing about a set of ideas that had hitherto played little part in my life. I live about an hour and a half from here, in the Wye Valley near Hay, and I found myself on an aimless psychogeographic foray one morning while sort of looking for something to write a book about.
Anyway, as those of you who live in the UK will no doubt recall, last winter was flood season. It hit the Welsh borders in a big way. It was mid-February and the Wye had burst its banks on either side so that it took up the whole valley. I drove down a scary flooded road to clear my head by going for a walk by a church.
About half an hour away, at Kilpeck on the other side of the Black Mountains, there is a very ancient church that dates to shortly after the Norman invasion. One of the many wonderful peculiarities of that particular part of Herefordshire, known first as the Welsh kingdom of Ergyng and then in the Old English as Archenfield, is that for many hundreds of years its location on the border between England and Wales allowed it semi-autonomous status, even under the Normans as recorded in the Domesday Book, and that semi-autonomous status protected the social and political characteristics of the area from intervention into the late Middle Ages.
It also seems likely that local religious traditions would have been protected, with Archenfield, which remained largely Welsh-speaking until the nineteenth century, retaining a form of early Celtic Christianity for some time after the Saxon church decided to follow Rome.
Why is any of this relevant? Kilpeck was the administrative and religious centre of Archenfield. Therefore, we can regard the church as being able to tell us something about the religious character of that place and time, and the church is an extraordinary building.
In order to get to the church, I had to drive down the Golden Valley, a side valley off the Wye, and the extent of the devastation on the road, with the tarmac torn up at the edges by water and cars abandoned to flooding along the sides, was really striking. That road had just re-opened after being closed to flooding for a couple of days. The high school had closed; power lines were down; all of the basic bits of infrastructure and human technology that we take for granted had been taken out by something as basic as weather. Driving down the road was quite scary. I no longer trusted my car.
Along the way, I’d been thinking about how a twelfth-century Kilpeck congregation might have regarded the weather we had been experiencing. They would have seen it as an act of god, or possibly gods; they would probably have seen it as possessing teleological qualities; they would definitely have seen it as a phenomenon possessed of will or mind in some form.
It was when I saw the Green Man over the door that the whole idea coalesced: here was an ancient church, the last existing physical outpost of the old animistic Celtic Christianity, decorated with a plurality of images from nature and the world – a sheela-na-gig, all sorts of real and mythical beasts, people playing music and dancing or getting amorous – and a Green Man overseeing your entrance into it.
If you look at the earliest foliate heads, what we now call Green Men, such as images of Silvanus, the Roman forest deity –
this one, a terrible, terrible photo, is from a tombstone in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum at Trier – they have a benign quality.
This one, from Dore Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Herefordshire, dates from around the twelfth century. He’s pretty happy; the Cistercians believed in finding God through agriculture and the love of working with the land. I see him as positive, pantheistic. As you get later into the Middle Ages, you see gorier images among the foliate heads: they gurn miserably, their tongues are often sticking out, indicating death. They seem to be intended as a warning against something – that something being to do with connecting with non-human life and with nature.
One interpretation is that they warn against seeking spiritual nourishment in nature, another that nature represents the sensual and material world. What most people seem to agree on is that these later medieval heads are a reminder that God is the only true path. Anglo-Saxon shamanism had the Upper World, an ethereal spiritual dimension, the Middle World, which lay behind what appears before us as material existence, and the Lower World, which lay beneath the ground in the roots of the tree-cosmography. The Church kept the Upper World as Heaven and proscribed the Lower World as Hell, so that all the images associated with it were translated into Satan and demons.
And then there’s a gap, a big gap, before you have the contemporary reimaginings of them, which are beneficent: far from warning us against communing with nature, they are designed to encourage us to do so, to picture ourselves made of leaves or emerging from them, connected in some way to an all-encompassing nature from which humans are not apart.
But it turned out that it wasn’t that simple. The Green Man never really existed as a coherent, unbroken visual tradition, let alone as an ancient godhead or icon or vehicle for attunement. That bit was all made up quite recently.
Just as the historian Ronald Hutton has dismantled much of the popular notion that contemporary neopaganism is based on ancient authentic underground religious practices that had to be kept hidden from the Church, in a way that seems pretty convincing and evidence-based, if you talk to a folklorist about the history of the Green Man he will tell you that there is no authentic singular archetype that exists in some form or another throughout history. Neopaganism is a meme. The Green Man is a meme. They were reinterpreted fragments of old ideas and iconographies, reinterpreted through particular contemporary experiences and concerns that have given them a new shape.
The Green Man is a twentieth-century construct. Insofar that he exists, it is in the contemporary imagination. He was invented by an amateur anthropologist, Lady Raglan, who wrote an article in the journal Folklore in March 1939 which elided the foliate heads from the churches near her home at Llangwm in Monmouthshire, not far from here, with various folk traditions now thought to be completely unrelated such as Jack-in-the-Green, a May Day ceremony involving a man dressed up as a tree.
Lady Raglan’s Green Man piece was a spectacular piece of mythologising. In the wake of Frazer’s Golden Bough the suppressed paganism trope that is now disputed by people like Hutton was developing, perhaps in part as a response to industrial society and in part in lieu of the dwindling hold of the established Christian church over religious and spiritual beliefs. Lady Raglan’s various scantily researched elisions caught the popular imagination, and never more so than now in our dangerously anthropocene world.
I was supposed to be researching a book about this thing or idea that turned out not to be a real thing at all, to lack any sort of consistent heritage, and about halfway through I realised that far from being a weakness, that shifting and constructed quality was actually a strength.
One of the few things that people can agree on about the Green Man is that he represents an interface between human and non-human life, and that he represents an understanding of a non-human world that is neither mechanistic nor sterile. Various accounts of the Green Men exist as iterations of the pagan god Pan, which you can certainly see in this one from an eleventh century Knights Templar church near here at Garway, or as the Sufi Al-Khidr, who shamanically straddles the material and ethereal worlds, or as a more secular image of a deep and attuned connection between man and nature – here from the cover of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake. The common strand between the belief systems that underpin these interpretations is some shared form of animism or panpsychism. They all rest on a worldview in which mind, will, autonomy exist across all things.
The Green Man was only ever a meme. But all belief systems that catch on are memes. Cartesianism was a meme. Spinozism was a meme, one you see expressed more recently in Bergson and Whitehead and Deleuze. So were all those various forms of Christianity as they ossified into structures of oppression, and were overturned.
All of these things, these memes, were metaphysical ideas being expressed and mediated in different ways for different sorts of people. There were academic metaphysical memes and folk metaphysical memes. The Green Man was a folk metaphysical meme whose freshly constructed quality derived from a new post-Anthropocene panpsychism, that was visually articulated and accessed in a way that appealed to all sorts of different people from all sorts of different religious and spiritual and secular backgrounds. And those people were the activists, the artists and writers and musicians and eco-warriors who would end up gaining far more of a hold over the public imagination than any academic paper could hope to do.
The right thing to do, surely, is to cultivate the memes that work better for the physical environment that we find ourselves in now, a physical environment shaped by human intervention, that human intervention itself shaped by centuries of anthropocentrist belief. Maybe people out there aren’t stupid. Maybe there is a degree of rational choice in how we select or build our folk metaphysics. And with that in mind, I think it’s time to ditch the institutional mediation of metaphysics and to reclaim it, messily, back into life.
Kathleen Basford, The Green Man (Cambridge: D S Brewer, 1996)
Brian Branston, The Lost Gods of England (London: Constable, 1993)
Henri Bergson, Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey (eds.), Key Writings (London: Continuum, 2002)
F H Bradley, Appearance and Reality, 9th Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930)
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (London: Continuum, 2001)
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum, 2004)
Rene Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings (London: Penguin, 2000)
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (London: Macmillan, 1929)
Philip Goff, Consciousness and Fundamental Reality [work in progress, currently accessible online at http://www.philipgoffphilosophy.com/publications.html]
Ronald Hutton, Pagan Britain (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)
Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, 1919)
Lady Raglan, ‘The “Green Man” in Church Architecture,’ Folklore
Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 1939), pp. 45-57
Keith Robinson, Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections (London: Macmillan, 2009)
Steve Roud, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin, 2003)
Bertrand Russell, Analysis of Mind [available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2529/2529-h/2529-h.htm]
F C S Schiller, Riddles of the Sphinx: A Study in the Philosophy of Evolution (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1891)
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
David Skrbina, The Metaphysics of Technology (London: Routledge, 2015)
David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005)
David Skrbina (ed.), Mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 2009)
David Skrbina (ed.), Technological slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2010)
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (London: Penguin, 1996)
Galen Strawson, ‘Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism,’ in David Skrbina (ed.), Mind that Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 2009)