Minding (about) Matter: On the Eros and Anguish of Earthly Encounter

A review essay engaging with Freya Mathews’ two recent titles: For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism and Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture

by Kate Rigby

© all rights reserved

In her Editorial for the special issue of the British journal Worldviews dedicated to Australian ecological thought, Freya Mathews observes that the first steps towards a profound rethinking of Western philosophical traditions from an explicitly ecological, indeed ecocentric, perspective were taken around the same time at opposite ends of the world. Perhaps not coincidentally, she suggests, this occurred in countries where the presence and agency of the other-than-human remains palpable: in Norway, with the work of Arne Naess, and in Australia, with that of Val and Richard Routley (later Val Plumwood and Richard Sylvan), in the early to mid-1970s.1 In the meantime, Mathews has herself emerged internationally as a major voice of Australian ecophilosophy, and as a rigorous and original thinker of the first order.

At the centre of Mathews’ philosophical endeavour lies the articulation of a new post-Cartesian and post-Newtonian metaphysics within which to reconsider the perennial question of the nature and purpose of human existence in the unprecedented context of a humanly engendered global ecological crisis. In her view, this crisis should be recognised:

as a symptom of a deeper, metaphysical crisis in human consciousness and an accompanying crisis of culture. A reorientation to the living world will be possible only in the context of a reorientation to materiality per se and a new appreciation of the possibilities inherent in our relation to world, and its local modality, place.2

In her first book, The Ecological Self (London: Routledge, 1991), Mathews finds a point of departure for this project of metaphysical reorientation in Spinozan monism, which she reinterprets, with the aid of postmodern physics and contemporary ecophilosophy, as enabling a new understanding of the self as both individuated and interconnected with diverse others, all of whom exist within a greater whole. In her two new books, For Love of Matter (2003) and Reinhabiting Reality (2005), she reformulates the metaphysical model of her earlier work in terms of a renovated panpsychism, examining what it might mean, both in theory and in practice, for humans to understand themselves as existing within a physical reality that is mind-full and communicative. In the process, Mathews ventures far beyond the confines of purely ecological concern, while also breaching the bounds of strictly philosophical argumentation. Here, we encounter Mathews not only as a fine thinker, but also as a remarkable reader of narrative and as an evocative writer of place.

Panpsychism has a long, if largely underground, tradition in Western thought. It last resurfaced in German Naturphilosophie of the Romantic era, above all that of F. W. J. Schelling, in whose reintegration of mind and matter Mathews acknowledges a precursor to her own project.3 Yet it is not to European Romanticism, which she suspects of having fostered a one-sided rejection of reason with unsavoury political consequences, but rather to the non-Western philosophies of Taoism and Indigenous Australia that she acknowledges her greatest debt: indeed, For Love of Matter is graced by a beautiful essay by Frans Hoogland, whose account of an Indigenous understanding of ‘Living Country’ is reproduced in an Appendix. This turn towards non-Western traditions is frequently undertaken by ecophilosophers, but it is rarely as well motivated as it is here. For it is Mathews’ contention that Western philosophy was inaugurated by the Greek pre-Socratics precisely in an epochal break with the popular panpsychism of animist myth. To rehabilitate panpsychism, albeit in a new guise, is then in a sense to move beyond philosophy, at least in its dominant Western modality. Yet Mathews, whose work is underpinned by a profound respect for the value of reasoned argumentation, is not about to throw the baby out with the bath water; nor is her account of panpsychism directly appropriated from Chinese or Indigenous Australian traditions. Instead, she deftly deploys the tools of analytic thought in which she was trained in order to render the panpsychist premise of the underlying unity of mind and matter philosophically plausible, before proceeding to demonstrate how this view might be embodied in culturally transformative ways within contemporary Western society.

The version of panpsychism that Mathews develops in For Love of Matter deploys the Platonic terminology of the One and the Many to an avowedly non-Platonic, because non-dualist, end. This entails positing the universe as a kind of “cosmic self,” “a unified, though internally differentiated and dynamic, expanding plenum,” which is self-generative, self-realising and self-referential.4 Within this primal field of impulsion that is “perhaps not so different from energy itself” (LM, 49), a multiplicity of secondary self-realizing systems, or individuated selves, are formed, which are interrelated with one another through intermediate systems, such as ecosystems. Importantly, some such individuated selves also have the potential to observe the manifestation of the greater self of which they are a part. While the science of physics can be understood as engaging in this process of observation “from the outside” (LM, 49), the panpsychist does so, as it were, from within: here, the primal field, as manifest in particular material entities and places, is perceived in its subjectival dimension. From this perspective, the world appears not merely or principally as a series of causal relations, but rather as a nexus of communication, in which the One perpetually reaches out and signals to the Many, as they do, to a greater or lesser extent and intensity, to one another, in and through a shared, if variously experienced, physical reality.

Lest this should sound like plunging us into a nightmare world where we risk falling prey to imperious commands issued by power-points and such like, let me hasten to add that Mathews cautions that not all physical entities can be supposed to communicate with us intentionally: such intentionality can only reasonably be attributed to more complex individuated selves (whose communications, as Freud observed, themselves often convey something other than what was intended). That oddly marked stone which caught my eye just now, for instance, is not a self-conscious system and cannot be expected to have a message for me in the same way as the neighbour’s dog does when warning me off her territory. However, if I am suitably receptive, I might recognise in the stone as I encountered it just then a symbolic significance, which, from the panpsychist perspective, is not merely a matter of projection, but might rather bear a message for me from the world beyond myself. Importantly, such potential communications of the One to the Many, being mediated, are, like all communication, open to interpretation and thus misunderstanding. In particular, Mathews warns against the danger of a certain egocentric literalism, whereby misfortune, for example, is read as punishment, potentially requiring elaborate ritual practices of appeasement. Mathews is also careful to differentiate panpsychist spirituality from the manipulative magic of the sorcerer, who seeks to induce the world to do his bidding. For the panpsychist, “communication with the world is taken as an end in itself, as the dimension of grace in our lives, rather than as a means of securing our safety and good fortune” (LM, 68).

The metaphysical premise of panpsychism has significant epistemological, as well as ethical, implications, opening a path out of the deadlock of materialism contra idealism. By materialism, Mathews means today’s ‘common sense’ view, which rose to dominance in the West in the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, according to which matter is held to be essentially inert and devoid of consciousness (the bad boys here are of course Descartes and Newton). Idealism, while generally understood as materialism’s opposite, is, Mathews maintains, in effect its corollary: for if matter is held to be mindless, our own mental lives are likely to appear to us as separate and possibly even independent from any putative material reality ‘out there’, which is then held to be either unknowable, as in the case of Kantian transcendental idealism, or, in more extreme versions of idealism, such as that of Bishop Berkeley, actually constituted by consciousness. Paradoxically, then, materialism engenders “derealization,” the currently dominant version of which within Western academia, as Mathews’ observes in Reinhabiting Reality, is the philosophy of (social/cultural/discursive) constructivism:

When matter is thought to appoint no ends or purposes for us, that same matter becomes increasingly irrelevant to the way we experience our lives: it is perceived merely as the inert backdrop to our meaning-making, a backdrop that can be epistemically constructed in countless ways. (RR, 12)

Panpsychism offers to release us from the evil spell of this “collective human solipsism” (RR, 12) by reconnecting us with a more-than-human material reality that, could we but open ourselves to it, is constantly in communication with us, revealing itself to us, if never fully and rarely unambiguously, in ways that we would do well to heed.

There is perhaps a certain circularity in Mathews’ “argument from realism” in that it is only once we have accepted the panpsychist premise that we can regain confidence in our experience of reality as something more than a reflection of our own projections, thereby recognising in the communicative gestures of other-than-human entities evidence of the veracity of panpsychism. I will return to the question of epistemology when I come to consider Mathews’ searing, and in my view partially misdirected, critique of “deconstructive postmodernism” in the first appendix to For Love of Matter. Here, though, it is important to note that For Love of Matter does not in fact begin with the epistemological defence of panpsychism, but rather with a story about love. Here, Mathews justifies her project as a quest, not so much for truth per se, but for a metaphysical framework within which the human capacity to fall in love, not only with an individual human other, but with the physical world
itself, might be affirmed and fostered. It is then, as her title suggests, in the name of love – love, that is, of the more-than-human material reality that supports and enfolds and impinges on us and of which we are ourselves a part as embodied beings – that Mathews enjoins us to entertain the panpsychist possibility. Once we do so, moreover, we find that our attitude towards the world and its diverse denizens necessarily shifts from one of truth seeking, at least in any objectifying sense, to that of erotic encounter, entailing a non-objectifying kind of “carnal knowing” (LM, 78): a mutual opening of the one to the other, full of unpredictability and risk, in which neither party is ever fully revealed, thereby each remaining forever beyond the other’s grasp. For the panpsychist, then, epistemological quandaries are in any case secondary, for “the aim is not to theorize the world, but to relate to it, and to rejoice in that relationship. For this we need practices of invocation and response,” such as ritual practices, perhaps, but above all poetry and song. On this level too panpsychism, while philosophically defensible and productive of experiences that can be philosophically analysed, points beyond philosophy. For, in a panpsychist frame, the point is “not to explain the world, by to sing it” (LM, 88).

A concerted this-worldliness is of course a commonplace of green thought. There is nothing glib about Mathews’ new epistle of earthly love, however, for it comes with an insistence that we confront also the suffering that embodied existence inevitably entails. Preoccupied with the equally essential task of countering those forms of more-than-human, and potentially avoidable, suffering that have their genesis not in nature, but in society, ecophilosophers and ecopolitical theorists have tended to be silent on the dire realities of pain, predation, disease and death that seem to be inseparable from organismic life in general. In one of the most explicitly theological moments of For Love of Matter, in which Mathews appears to me to draw closer to German Naturphilosophie than to Australian Indigenous traditions, she suggests that the panpsychist can only assume that the suffering of the Many is shared by the One, for whom it is the unavoidable consequence of the abundant diversity of its physical manifestation: the One “submits to such suffering presumably because there are simply no other ways of creating the required abundance and diversity of selves than those ways that have pain as their corollary (such as the processes of natural selection and evolution that we find here on earth) […]” (LM, 102). In the absence of this panpsychist insight, however, Mathews maintains that Western culture has favoured other ways of accounting for suffering that militate against the ethos of erotic encounter and the love of the material world that it fosters. Such are, in her analysis, the biblical narratives of the Fall and the Resurrection, which suggest two alternate, and equally problematic, responses to the problem of suffering. In the first, suffering, understood to be the result of human sin, is met by the institution of the Law, a coercive moral order principally oriented towards serving what Mathews terms the ‘autoic’ psychological impulse of self-preservation. The Jesus story, by contrast, answers primarily to the ‘unitive’ impulse, by promising an eventual release from suffering through salvation in Christ.

Biblical scholars and theologians are bound to find Mathews’ interpretation of these narratives highly reductive. It might be observed, for example, that she imputes to the Genesis story a spirit-matter dualism that derives from Greek metaphysics and is utterly alien to the Hebrew (con)text. Such criticisms would nonetheless miss the point, in that Mathews’ “psycho-philosophical” readings are intended neither as historico-textual exegesis, nor as blanket judgements on what she recognises as the “eminently protean traditions of Judaism and Christianity” (LM, 90), but rather as a consideration of the ways in which these narratives can be seen to reinforce certain psychological dispositions that have been historically prevalent in the West: one oriented towards the control of nature as the penalty of (and answer to) the Fall, and the other towards transcendence of nature through mystical union with the divine. In both cases, what is elided is an erotic opening to the physical world that is driven neither by the quest for mastery nor by the urge to merge, but rather by a desire for intersubjective congress, in which alterity and mystery are preserved within the always unforeseeable moment of contact and communication.

The path to erotic selfhood, that is, towards a way of being that is neither repressive nor regressive, within which reality is encountered in its dual modality of unity and differentiation, is mapped in the last chapter of For Love of Matter through a remarkable reading of the story of Eros and Psyche from The Golden Ass by the second-century Roman writer, Lucius Apuleius. Here it becomes apparent that while panpsychism invites us into an erotic relationship with the other-than-human, the cultivation of this relationship has a specifically human dimension, to the extent that it involves a conscious refinement of “the brute striving of appetite” into “an awakened reaching out,” oriented towards communion with, but not consumption of, the other (LM, 150). The path from appetite to eros, in Mathews’ analysis, passes through and beyond self-consciousness: the stage at which the psyche of modern societies has become arrested, in her view. Turning from the embedded narrative of Eros and Psyche to Apeleius’ frame narrative, Mathews writes, “Lucius evolves from a condition of brute appetite to one of spiritual maturity and potentiation. The ultimate point of the tale is that Lucius becomes fully human, luminously filled, only when he falls in love with the divinely animate face of the world, and enters into total communion with it” (LM, 152). The path of awakened intersubjectivity, Mathews cautions in conclusion, is nonetheless far from universally joyous: on the contrary, it renders the pain of more than human others more salient for us, even while we find delight in our surprise encounters with them. Trusting in the love of the One, however, she suggests that we might be better able to abide the “bittersweetness of this piercing” (LM, 160). Cultivating our perhaps peculiarly human potential to refine brute appetite into erotic relationship, moreover, Mathews speculates that we might perhaps even help to bring about a wider transformation within the communicative order as a whole.

What is at stake for Mathews is then not ‘only’ the survival of the planetary ecosystems that support human life physically, but also, and especially, the survival, or, as the subtitle to Reinhabiting Reality indicates, the recovery of a truly human mode of being in the world: one to which she here gives the hallowed name of ‘culture’. Reminding us of the derivation of this word from the Latin colere, meaning to till or cherish, Mathews redefines culture as the collective human practice of “developing expressive forms of life within a field of cherishing” (RR, 21). Such a practice of cherishing implies a devotional attitude towards the world, embodying gratitude for the given. Clearly, this is very much at odds with the Promethean mentality of modernity, according to which the given only acquires value once we have taken possession of it and bent it to our will. In a passage that resonates strongly with the critique of technological ‘enframing’, as distinct from poietic techne, developed by Martin Heidegger (about whom more anon),5 she asserts:

Modern society does not engage with world but encroaches upon it. It does not tend and cherish the ground of being, bringing forth in new poetic forms that which is already potentiality within it, but blasts and quarries the ground, imposing its own alien designs upon it. (RR, 23)

The result, as Mathews poignantly illustrates with regard to the industrial makeover of her own childhood home on the erstwhile urban-rural fringe of Melbourne, is a world rendered into blocks, devoid of the complex contouring and mysterious meanderings of natural becoming, utterly empty of meaning and stripped of grace: a world that has come to embody the bruteness and blindness that dualistic thought had always attributed to the merely material and that we ourselves have come to share in our refusal of communication with any but the tiny category of those in whom we are prepared to acknowledge the presence of mind.

Yet, and this is my view one of the great achievements of her work, it is here, in the midst of this ugly and godforsaken world in which our own blockheadedness is made manifest, that Mathews invites us to begin to unblock the channels of more-than-human communication and to thereby find pathways of reinhabitation. Cutting across the anthropocentrism-ecocentrism divide, with which much English-language ecophilosophy has been preoccupied, Mathews argues that our best chance of respecting the space in which other beings might flourish is to place ourselves, our own mode of dwelling, at the centre of our consideration. Moreover, in her panpsychist insistence on the mentalistic dimension that inheres in matter per se, Mathews displaces the opposition between the naturally occurring and the humanly made, such that the ecotopian project of ‘returning to nature’ is reconceived as the endeavour, not to restore “a set of lost things or attributes, but rather to allow a certain process to begin again” (RR, 31): this is, she suggests, to desist from endeavouring to remake reality according to our latest ideal, and instead to allow the world “grow old.” Thus, rather than fleeing the city or, worse still, tearing it down, in hopes of creating a perfect new world of ecosocial harmony – an ambition that simply perpetuates the modernist impulse to erase the actual in favour of the possible – we should seek instead to cherish, and if necessary, heal, those things and places that are given to us here and now, such that they might become more conducive to the flourishing of more-than-human life.

Importantly, this does not imply a retreat into political quietism or a disregard for social injustice. On the contrary, Mathews suggests that the gracious acceptance of the materially given could have radically transformative implications in the present, for it would engender a conserver ethos, conjoining the “custodial role of the right with the moral intent of the left” (RR, 38), which would be profoundly subversive of capitalist structures of property ownership, modes of production, and practices of commodification and consumerism. Similarly, the ethos of “becoming native” that she presents as the more activist counterpart to “letting the world grow old,” implies resistance to those socio-economic structures and political contingencies that are today responsible for driving ever more into exile or in other ways vitiating any place-based sense of belonging. Here it should be stressed that Mathews’ version of nativism is about as far removed from a fascistic cult of ‘blood and soil’ as you can get. For while she acknowledges the value of long residence, facilitating the intergenerational passing down of cultures of place, the counter-, or, as she prefers here, ‘alter-modern’ communities of reinhabitants that Mathews favours are emphatically open ones, offering a welcome to the stranger, and interlinked with other such communities throughout the world. In a settler society such as our own, moreover, Mathews insists that the endeavour of non-indigenous people to ‘become native’ to those places in which they now reside must be premised on the acknowledgement of, and provision of compensation for, the violence of colonisation, which continues to devastate the place-based cultures of Indigenous people throughout the country. It is only on the basis of true reconciliation that Indigenous and non-indigenous alike might become co-custodians of this wounded yet still living and, as Mathews insists, speaking land.

Delightfully, Mathews also stresses that the reinhabitant is not necessarily a stay-at-home. Cherishing one’s home place, itself full of surprises and hidden dimensions, is by no means incompatible with venturing into the unknown, as Mathews demonstrates through her narratives of journeying to a friend’s farm in Western Australia, to Hamilton Downs in Central Australia, and, most wondrously in my view, to the source of the Merri Creek, west of Melbourne. These narratives, along with other chapters in parts 2 and 3 of Reinhabiting Reality (including a further psycho-philosophical reading, this time of a children’s story, “The White Heron,” and a journal of her sojourns on a farm in the Otway Ranges), comprise what Mathews terms “ground studies” and “views from the ground”: philosophical field studies in a panpsychist frame. Here, Mathews really comes into her own as a writer, and I am sure that I will not be alone in looking forward to reading more from her in this more lyrical vein in the future.

Reinhabiting Reality closes with a discussion of a place that is particularly special for Mathews herself, namely an environment park in Melbourne’s inner-western suburb of Brunswick, through which the Merri Creek flows. Created on what was formerly a refuse tip, the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES), whose very name evokes a felicitous alliance of science and myth, instantiates the possibilities of urban renewal and reenchantment that unfold from the practice of reinhabitation. In addition to providing certified organic fruit and vegetables, native plants, and environmental education, CERES has become a bustling meeting place and a vibrant locus of seasonal celebration. The most important event in the CERES calendar is the Sacred Kingfisher Festival, which was created in response to the reappearance of this exquisite bird in this place as a result of the restoration of the local ecology of the Merri Creek. Held each spring, this festival brings together a multi-cultural cast of hundreds of performers, led by local Indigenous people, with thousands of residents, environmentalists and activists, “in a high energy reenactment of the retreat of the kingfisher in the face of ecological holocaust and its return in response to the efforts of local people to regenerate their ‘country’ through regenerative healing” (RR, 202). As Mathews lovingly depicts it here, the return of the sacred kingfisher, and the emergence of the community that is finding creative ways to honour it, stand as a beacon of hope that another way of being and dwelling is possible, here and now, as we finally begin to move out of the “long winter of colonization/development/modernization” (RR, 202).


For some time now, metaphysics has been out of favour in the trendier corners of the Humanities. Not incorrectly, Mathews notes that this renunciation of metaphysics is generally politically motivated: by insisting on the situatedness, and hence relativity, of all understanding, the knowledge claims of the dominant group in society, frequently used to legitimate oppressive social relations, can be brought into question and the alternate understandings held by marginalised others – workers, women, the colonised, homosexuals etc. – granted validity. The contemporary hostility towards metaphysics does also have a philosophical basis, however, and one that is of some relevance for Mathews’ project. Beginning with Kant’s crucial warning in the Critique of Pure Reason against the epistemological hubris of assuming that how things appear to us, mediated by our specifically human senses and mental structures, corresponds to how they are ‘in themselves’, the suspicion of metaphysics deepens with Nietzsche’s diagnosis of “the desire for mastery over the world that haunts our ‘will to truth’,”6 and is taken further by Heidegger, for whom the quest for ‘constant presence’ that underpins Western metaphysics culminates in the technological reduction of ever more entities (fellow humans included) to the status of   ‘standing reserve’, totally knowable, utterly available, and endlessly manipulable.7 To this critique, Jacques Derrida has added the important qualification that try as we might, we can never entirely escape from metaphysics: at any rate, not so long as we continue to speak, for metaphysical assumptions are built into our very language. What we can do is to practice a certain vigilance with regard to such assumptions, without any hope of keeping our conscience clear on this count, however, for many of our own metaphysical entanglements are likely to remain veiled to us, while continuing to seek ways of speaking otherwise.8

In practice, Mathews wears her avowed metaphysics, if not exactly lightly, then at least with a degree of epistemological modesty. For a start, it should be noted that hers is a metaphysics of causality, rather than of presence, which is the primary target of the Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian critique: as we have seen, the carnal knowing of erotic encounter that she advances is premised precisely on the partial self-withdrawal, or opacity, of the other.9 Moreover, Mathews is happy to acknowledge that “we do, to a significant degree, construct the world that we inhabit, in ways biological and neurological, social and cultural, not to mention discursive and ideological, as poststructuralists and feminists, and before them Marxists, have so illuminatingly demonstrated” (LM, 170-1). From a panpsychist perspective, however, our perceptions and understandings must also be seen as co-constituted by the more-than-human world itself: “It will reach out to us, regardless of the particular sensory forms it assumes for us and the discursive constructions we impose on it” (LM 171). This panpsychist view is not advanced as dogma, though, but rather as a thought experiment: “As philosophers we retain our right to reject the panpsychist hypothesis itself and any or all of our readings of purported panpsychist revelations. We are not in the business of exchanging reason for faith […] In this sense the panpsychist consciousness of the philosopher is still provisional, still reflective, and hence essentially and always in process” (RR, 113). In view of these important qualifications, those who have learnt to view the truth claims of metaphysicians with suspicion might prefer to think favourably of Mathews’ panpsychist philosophy, not as a new metaphysics as such, but, more humbly perhaps, as an “onto-story”:10 a new tale about being, and one that bears great ethical significance. For at the same time that it invites us to become more fully human, and as such, a potential blessing rather than a bane on this earth, it also gives a voice to “the largest and most marginalized and maltreated of all political constituencies: the constituency of other-than-human subjects” (LM, 176).

In the first Appendix to For Love of Matter, Mathews finds fault with what she terms “deconstructive postmodernism” as a form of idealism. In my view, this charge might well be justified with regard to the way that certain strands of recent French thought, generally lumped together as ‘poststructuralist’, have been taken up in many Arts Faculties in the English-speaking world. However, it certainly does not hold true for the originator of deconstruction (an identity that he would surely have problematised). As I am belatedly coming to realise, Derrida is a potential ally of those who seek to champion the other-than-human, not only in his late writings on animals, but more generally in his insistence on the way that all human ideations are perpetually being ‘interrupted’ by what they seek to exclude, including potentially a multiplicity of dynamic and more-than-human material forces. Far from being an idealist, Derrida might better be described as a non-reductive materialist, whose life’s work, as Pheng Cheah has argued, constituted “a rigorous attempt to rethink the dynamism of the given outside an anthropologistic horizon.”11 This is not the place to pursue the potential ecological virtues of deconstruction, but I feel that it is important to note them here, as I would like to see more dialogue between the likes of Mathews and those who have found inspiration in the new wave of French philosophy and the earlier strands of German thought with which it engages, both critically and creatively.

It should also be noted that there is a sense in which Mathews’ approach – like that of a good many ecophilosophers and ecocritics – is itself an idealist one, to the extent that she assumes that our relationship to the world and to one another is largely determined by our metaphysical assumptions. “The environmental record,” she maintains, “may with some justification then be taken as testimony to the fact that the pre-socratics, and the civilization they inaugurated, got it wrong” (RR, 107). If this is true, then the cultivation of a different metaphysical orientation, one that corrects the pre-socratic error by restoring mind to matter, would indeed be essential to the task of rendering our way of life less environmentally impoverishing. But what if it is actually our way of life that inclines us to favour one metaphysical orientation over another? This is of course the historical materialist view that Marx developed in opposition to Hegelian historical idealism, and I myself am inclined to think that he was onto something. By this reasoning, it was not so much that certain Europeans began exploiting the earth (and subordinate humans) at an ever-accelerating pace for financial gain because they had been won over to a reductive Cartesian-Newtonian account of matter; rather, they were attracted to this new way of thinking, because it made sense to them in the context of their modern way of life (one that depended upon exploiting the earth, and subordinate humans, at an ever-accelerating pace for financial gain). If, as Marxists maintain, historical change is driven not so much by new ideas, but by contradictions that emerge in the material relations of production, then we must be on the cusp of a major shift, if not quite of the kind envisaged by Marx and Engels, for whom only humans qualified as historical actants. For today, the greatest contradiction is surely that between global capitalism and the ecosystems of the earth itself, and it would seem that the most powerful agent of change might well prove to be the weather. As this contradiction reaches crisis point, and we are compelled to find new ways of living, new patterns of relationship to one another and to other others, the theory and praxis of panpsychism advanced by Freya Mathews could provide a path that far more than a counter-cultural few will follow. However that might be, for this reader at least, it offers an expanded horizon of understanding and much-needed inspiration in what appear to be exceedingly bleak and increasingly calamitous times.

For Love of Matter. A Contemporary Panpsychism was published in 2003 by Albany SUNY Press, Albany, and Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture was published in 2005 by SUNY Press, Albany and UNSW Press, Sydney.

Kate Rigby (FAHA) is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University and President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (Australia-New Zealand). Her most recent book is Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (University of Virginia Press, 2004).


1. F. Mathews, Introduction to Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Nature 3:2 (1999), Special Issue on Australian Perspectives.

2. Reinhabiting Reality (hereafter: RR), p. 8.

3. Romantic philosophies of nature, together with romantic science, have been undergoing a significant re-evaluation for the past two decades and, as I argue in the first chapter of my recent book on European Romanticism, deserve closer ecophilosophical scrutiny. See Rigby, Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism, Charlottesville: U of Virginia P. For an excellent introduction to Schelling’s thought, see also Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1993. In my view, the irrationalism that Mathews rightly fears is a feature less of the writing of Schelling and his contemporaries than of early twentieth-century neo-romanticism.

4. For Love of Matter, p. 49. Hereafter: LM.

5. I am thinking here especially of Heidegger’s 1953 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” which has long been of interest to some ecophilosophers. See e.g. Michael Zimmerman, Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), and Bruce V. Foltz, Inhabiting the Earth. Heidegger, Environmental Ethics and the Metaphysics of Nature (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1995). An English translation of Heidegger’s essay can be found in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. and intro. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge,1996). I have also grappled with this essay, together with Heidegger’s other writings on art, poetry and dwelling, from an ecocritical perspective in “Earth, World, Text: On the (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis,” New Literary History, 35.3 (Summer 2004), 427-42.

6. Thanks to David Wood for this thumbnail sketch in Thinking After Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity, 2002, p.8.

7. The ecophilosophical significance of Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics is brought out very well by Foltz in Part I of Inhabiting the Earth.

8. Much of Derrida’s work can be read as a grappling with Heidegger, his most recent sustained engagement with his major philosophical predecessor being Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. See also Wood, Thinking after Heidegger, 93-105.

9. Thanks to Kevin Hart for alerting me to this important distinction in a comment on this review.

10. This is how Jane Bennett refers to her version of hylozoism, advanced with the view of allowing “nonhumanity to appear on the ethical radar screen.”   In “The Force of Things. Steps toward an Ecology of Matter,” Political Theory 32: 3, 365, 357.

11. Pheng Cheah, “Mattering,” Diacritics 26.1 (1996), pp. 108-39, accessed on-line at http://muse.uq.edu.au.ezp…als/diacritics/v26/26.1er_butler.html, p. 14 of 24 (7/09//2005). David Wood also argues that Derrida’s work might be read as a new (non-reductive) materialism that has much to offer ecological thought in “Econstruction: Greening Postmodernity,” unpublished paper presented at “Ecosophia: Scholar’s Colloquium” in association with the Drew Transdisciplinary Conference on Religion, Democracy and the Earth, Drew University, 1/9/2005.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]