In Defense of Metaphysics:
The Use and Abuse of Philosophy in Permaculture

“The philosopher is the concept’s friend; he is potentiality of the concept. That is, philosophy is not the simple art of forming, inventing or fabricating concepts, because concepts are not necessarily forms, discoveries or products. More rigorously philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts… It is no objection to say that creation is the prerogative of the sensory and the arts, since art brings spiritual entities into existence while philosophical concepts are also “sensibilia”. In fact, sciences, arts and philosophies are all equally creative, although only philosophy creates concepts in the strict sense. Concepts are not waiting for us ready-made, like heavenly bodies. There is no heaven for concepts. They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created and would be nothing without their creator’s signature”
-Deleuze and Guattari “What is Philosophy?”

In the past couple of years there have been several high profile discussions of the appropriate for role philosophy in permaculture. Most of these discussions seem to revolve around conceptions of philosophy which are not terribly interesting. Rather than critique them, and thereby solve and negate them, we want to begin with them and see if they will grow and take us somewhere else; perhaps in extending them we can see if they are robust concepts or fragile under this new pressure. Like any process the ultimate end of this exercise is not terribly important. What is important is that we think about the intermixing of permaculture and philosophy as dynamic and evolving. The unfortunate reality is that like any other creative practice, philosophy is rarely studied by the people who need it most. To often people outside of these fields have already excluded from being vital and important to their needs but search around constantly for tools that they would have found easily and well honed had they not excluded philosophy on first impressions. To often those inside them have forgotten what was important and are merely content to polish insignificant details as though they were wonders. It's really from the margins that we can see how philosophy is important and how it can be creatively applied to our work.

The first instance is PRI’s prohibition on the teaching of metaphysics as part of permaculture. Craig Mackintosh in an essay titled “Permaculture and Metaphysics” states ‘I personally often feel frustrated that too many permaculturists are mixing subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements into their courses, and are thereby helping to ensure permaculture is relegated to the periphery rather than — as desperately needs to happen — being taken up broad scale by all people everywhere, regardless of their culture and preferred belief system.” While it is fairly clear that Mackintosh wishes to use metaphysics as a catch all for the spiritual, the supernatural and the religious this is an unfortunate choice since it obscures a meaningful definition of metaphysics. It may perhaps be better to take a more traditional philosophical definition of metaphysics as ‘the world as it is’ or the fundamental nature of reality. Traditionally this has been held in tension with the notion of logic which is ‘the meaning of the world’ or how we might interpret the forms we sense around us. So the simplest definition of metaphysics is simply sensing the world before arriving to any concept of what that sensation might mean.

This is important because most students of permaculture will immediately recognise this as the best practice of site observation. To arrive at a place without preconception and formed concepts and to simply observe without forcing that observation. If we accept this practice as metaphysics it becomes in fact impossible to teach permaculture without metaphysics, since metaphysics, or seeing the world as it is, forms the basis for all further action. First and foremost we observe and interact. More importantly we observe and interact as fully sensing beings who’s presence is both effected and affects what we observe. That is to say that observation or perhaps better stated, sensing, happens both in time and in an environment and changes dynamically through the interaction of time and place. We no longer will see the rock that has always been right outside of our door when we pass by it for the thousandth time. It simply becomes an unexceptional part of a greater landscape. But the first time we are on a site that rock may be warm or wet and our sensing of that form will be pregnant with potentials that will be eroded by habitual passing.

Metaphysics and process together lead to the other important way in which permaculture is different from science. Permaculture is fundamentally a design practice and as such is grounded not in truth or in epistemology but in creation. While permaculture draws on science and weaves carefully through the resources that science drops, science is fundamentally about fact, truth and proof, features that might not be useful in the creative changing of the world. Whether or not something is true is not particularly important question in a design practice. Facts are less important that creative potentials. We care less about how much a tree produces than how to make a tree produce that much. If a fact allows for such a possibility then it is valuable. If a fact is simply true that what use is it? There is a reason that phone books, while being books of thousands of facts that are verifiably true, are not considered important repositories of knowledge. Their only value is that they might enable the creation of some expressive connection between friends. What we must hold as important in permaculture practice is that the facts of value to us are those which enable the creative becomings of well placed connections. This is the primary job we are engaged in. If we were scientists our first responsibility would be to truth or epistemology. In permaculture design however our first responsibility is to create a living space in which the interacting community of living things can express it's full potential and to make connections between elements so they produce more events with less effort. The fact that we are not overly concerned with what is true but rather with expressing potentials and materialising capacities should tell us that we might be more metaphysicians than scientists.

The other significant mention of philosophy and permaculture was Toby Hemenway’s recent article on the use of philosophy in permaculture. While Hemenway makes a strong case for design this design seems to be simply instrumentalist strategies by which we solve problems. There is an odd lack of creativity in this new paradigm. By distinguishing of design from the philosophy and paradigm, that is to say the interactions of ideas and people, Hemenway removes both process and creativity from design thinking. It becomes timeless solutions to a timeless problems. This is the unfortunate and typical way in which design tends to be framed. We don't undertake design to solve problems; solving problems is an incidental part of the process of design. The purpose of design, and all creative disciplines, is a enable the procession of events which allow for the material expression of new forms in the world. This is much more of a journey of moving through a field of immanent tools, concepts, problems and potentials. We cannot know what is going on under the ground in our site until we start digging holes. The act of digging both reveals problems and solutions but neither these problems or solutions are design. Design is the unknowable form that emerges from this process of interactions. These interactions, importantly, happen in a time and an environment and it is both that immanent history and place that allows for creative expression. If we are friends with our gardens and our landscapes design should not be a strategic activity with instrumental goals. We don't want to impose our strategies with military discipline but rather to bend and shape the expression of the landscape as though we were engaged in dance of moves and responses who's end goal was not instrumental but expressive. Our creativity as designers proceeds by the encounters between new and strange things in which some resonant potential is expressed. While clearly problems are solved in a design process these solutions are events that designers encounter in the course of this process. The purpose of design is not to solve problems any more than the purpose of gardening is to dig holes. A hole is simply an event that allows a tree to be planted. While a hole may solve a particular problem, like flat ground being the wrong shape to hold roots, these solutions are much more like techniques or recipes. They are ways of changing some material form for some instrumental purpose. Design is the subtler craft of bringing many forms together so that the whole becomes expressive. That is to say a solution is not expressive; it merely prevents a problem from impeding the expression of a design.

If we return to Deleuze’s definition philosophy is primary a creative activity which seeks to create new concepts. As such there is not easy way to separate the creation of concepts from the acts of design. Design is the set of acts in which concepts are given material form. Philosophy is the acts in which concepts are formed. Metaphysics, or the world as it is, is the environment in which they are formed. Most importantly all three are constantly and dynamically interacting and forming each other. The triad forms the creative processes in which we do permaculture work. We sense the forms of a place as it is. We create a concept of the potential of those forms. Then we make a material expression of that potential either as a map or as a process of actions and interactions on a site. Then we observe the expression of that form as it is in the world and how the world acts upon it and so on. This process is what distinguishes creativity from technique and even strategy. Creativity is always poised to take advantage of the new spaces opened by the interactions of events, what Stuart Kauffman calls ‘the adjacent possible’. A strategy is a predetermined design that is imposed on the future. It attempts to plan for the unknowable and solve it before it even happens. Creativity is, to paraphrase Deleuze, a friend to the unknown. It can walk with the unknowable and find joy and opportunity in the unfolding procession of events just as we are surprised and delighted when our friends bring us unexpected news. What distinguishes creators is a practiced hand and eye that can shape and bend this unfolding and unknown future form into a fully realised expression of it’s potential. The skill of creativity is not preparing for the unknown but being able to use the unknown expressively as part of a larger purpose. Solving a problem negates that problem while creativity allows for the safe passage of a potential expression to be realised. A slug problem is better though of as a potential for ducks rather than a problem of how to negate slugs. Creativity stems from asking ‘what if we do this?” and making the material changes required to see what happens. More critically, though, creativity is an action that responds to the failure of the first concept and the second solution and the third creative attempt. It is a passage through problems and solutions towards a larger goal. Creativity is not simply solving, and thereby negating problems and impediments, rather than seeing the creative potentials in unused capacities within a larger design. We do not solve a potential. Rather we create the conditions by which it can be usefully expressed. In this strange and exciting way we become friends with creation. This is where permaculture becomes part of the process of self creation that defines the living world. To become that we must accept and teach the intrinsic creativity of our work.


The PRI essay on metaphysics

Hemenway's Essay on What Permaculture Isn't and Is

A very metaphysical Bill Mollison lecture

A very accessible discussion of Deleuze & Guattari's 'What Is Philosophy?"

Image: The logistic map equation, while being completely deterministic, the form is unknowable until is expressed through iterative processes. Like a creative exploration we must allow the process to unfold in time and history to know the design of even this simple equation.