An Invitation to Ontopoetics: the Poetic Structure of Being

by Freya Mathews

© all rights reserved

I would like to start with a story. The story is of an event that occurred some years ago in outback Central Australia at an old cattle station named Hamilton Downs about 80 km to the northwest of Alice Springs. The event was a gathering, one in a series of “sense of place” colloquia that were held in various interesting venues over a number of years. The principal organizer and animateur that year was Craig San Roque, a Jungian analyst then resident in Alice Springs. Described as a “coming into country”, the gathering was intended to introduce the Hamilton Downs country to various scholars and academics interested in the idea of place. Participants had written and circulated their papers on place beforehand, so there was no need for formal presentations at the event. This left people in a prepared and receptive state of mind but free to engage with one another and with the place itself.1

The site was utterly beautiful. There was an old stone homestead set way out in the rangelands, with a windmill at the gate, a palm tree, a dry riverbed lined with large rocks and ancient white gums. The house looked over the riverbed to a range of arid pink cliffs in the distance.

The event was to last five days, and Craig San Roque had invited many local identities – artists and musicians and environmentalists, and, most importantly, Aboriginal custodians – to be with us for the first couple of days.

Those first few days were spent basically just milling around, with talking circles, dream circles, walks into country, an excursion to a numinous local site called Fish Hole. Stories were told: these included Dreaming stories for that country, offered by one of the indigenous custodians, and a walking tour of the local ecology led by a local ethnobotanist, who spoke intimately of each plant he pointed out, as if it had a personal story to tell. Amidst all this creative ferment, people bonded, wondered what they were doing there, felt disoriented, argued, sorted themselves out, and gradually woke up to the huge and majestic presence of country all around them.

It wasn’t until the second last day that the real work of the colloquium was ready to begin. We broke up into separate male and female groups and each group spent the day working out a “story of place” that expressed their own responses, and their address, to this shimmering country. In the evening the two groups came together in a series of explosive performances in the dry riverbed by the light of a monumental bonfire.

Overall, what was most astonishing, to my mind, about this colloquium was that it seemed to unfold via a logic of synchronicities. A set of initial conditions had been put in place to provide the framework or container for the event, but the event was, within that container, largely self-determining: what happened at one moment suggested what should happen at the next, and the structure of the entire event was highly recursive: each happening or offering fed back into, and inflected, everything else that was happening. On account of this extreme open-ness, skilfully preserved by Craig as animateur, there was plenty of opportunity – plenty of gaps in the “script” – for serendipity.

The upshot was that a complex and elaborate poetic invocation took shape organically in the course of the five days, and this seemed to elicit a complex and elaborate poetic response from the world. Many of the participants found themselves called into, or caught up in, incidents or circumstances that symbolically played out central themes of their lives, or challenged them to take steps they had not till then been able to take. Different individuals, acting independently, found their activities meshing to form poetic scenarios or narratives that they could not have imagined, yet which were perfectly apposite for the circumstances. Each time we came to a gap in the proceedings, it was if the land, or the world, stepped in, and offered poetic comments or denouements that exceeded anything we could have devised. There was a breathtaking display of lightning, for instance, just at a particular “flat spot” in the women’s final performance of place; multitudes of actual frogs gathered on the slope leading down to the river bed just after the men had performed a frog dance; crucial conversations were punctuated, at just the right moments, with expressive bird calls; three participants who had become lost temporarily at Fish Hole were about to sit on a strange rock when a loud report mysteriously emanated from it; indeed, seat-shaped rocks seemed to offer themselves in the riverbed whenever one turned, tired, looking for a place to rest…

The response of this country to our call consisted of different but cross-referenced responses to different individuals, together with common responses for the collective. It felt like a coming alive of the world, a flow of configurations of circumstances along axes of meaning.

At the end of the event one was left wondering how to make sense of it. The logic of its unfolding was so different from the tenor of everyday life – in modern societies, at any rate – in which events occur as a result of human intentions intersecting with causal conditions, but without any kind of internal thread of meaning supplied by the world itself. How then to explain this inner thread of meaning that was so much in evidence at Hamilton Downs, this responsiveness of the world to our call?

At the time I tried to make sense of it via the idea of Dao: “it felt to me as if one were riding something alive out there, a dragon, a great serpent, a current of energy. It would not necessarily carry one to where one wanted to go, but with a little steering, a little reining in, it would keep one moving, in process, evolving. To my mind it was the Dao. Out in that archaic world, the Dao was a bucking, plunging presence, wild but trustworthy, as real as a desert river in full flood.’

So this is one way in which the experience could be described – in Daoist terms, as the ceaseless flow of energy into meaningful but ever-unfolding patterns.. But does Daoism actually help us to make sense of the experience? Is it a useful point of entry into the mystery that a Hamilton Downs-like event represents for modern sensibilities? How tenable, we might ask, are the terms of Daoism today?

We know that the world in which the first texts of Daoism were written down – by Laozi and Zhuangzi – was a world of magic. We know too that this magic was largely a matter of superstition, of magicians or sorcerers or Daoist practitioners importuning the supernatural on behalf of themselves or their clients, seeking to manipulate reality by means of symbolic instruments. Most people today no longer take this aspect of Daoism seriously. With the vast apparatus of modern science now at our disposal, we have no need of instrumental magic, and even less belief in it.

But although this old world – this world of enchantment – was undoubtedly in part a figment of superstitious imagination, it may not have been entirely so. Daoism identified a movement in things, a directedness in their unfolding. The elements of nature (the “Ten Thousand Things”) are really, according to Laozi and Zhuangzi, patterns in an underlying flow. These patterns form and re-form under the influence of the patterns forming and re-forming around them. This is, in other words, an order of mutual arising, a symbiosis in which no particular form or pattern can emerge independently of the forms or patterns resolving and dissolving all around it. Moreover, when the Ten Thousand Things are left to arise spontaneously in this way, under the mutual influences of one another, the universe assumes its own proper pattern or form – it follows itsproper course.

This movement in things, or directedness in their unfolding, was presumably not merely imaginary, because Daoist practitioners who had received appropriate training – through various Daoist arts – could reliably detect it and adapt their activity to it. But nor was this movement in things, this directedness, merely the working of the laws of physics. Yes, it was a kind of energy ( qi, in Chinese), but this was not the energy of E=mc2. There were external indicators of it – pulses in the human body, for instance, and “dragon veins” (detectable pathways of energy flow) in the landscape.2 But it was not a purely external energy.3 This was because it emanated from a cosmology that did not distinguish, in an absolute way, between an internal and external aspect of things. According to this cosmology, reality was irreducibly psychophysical in character, a forever changing and unfolding pattern of movement that was as much psychic as physical. The external appearances could be described by physics, but the psychic interiority was the province of Dao.

What was it then to experience the world under this interior, psychic aspect? The classical Daoist texts are of course not explicit about this. But I would try to spell out the kind of experiences to which these texts are (rather cryptically) alluding as follows: if one somehow managed to slip under the psychic skin of the world, and “enter” its subjectivity, one would experience the “outside” as “inside”. If one stepped inside the world, in this sense, the trees and grass and rivers would no longer appear as external to oneself. They – along with oneself – would now be experienced as internal to the psyche of the world. One would be experiencing them, and oneself, from inside the world, rather than from outside it, from whence they appear as an object-manifold. As soon as one slips under the subject-object membrane in this way, one feels the psychic streaming with which things, as emanations of psychic process, are charged. One feels the directed energy of psychic arising that belongs to all psychic process. Viewed from within the subjectivity of the world, the Ten Thousand Things are charged with this psychic streaming. But when they are viewed from the outside in the normal way, as objects, this psychic streaming is non-manifest.

This streaming that animates things when they are viewed under the world’s psychic aspect corresponds, I want to suggest, to the directed movement in things that Laozi and Zhuangzi called Dao. Once one slips inside the world and begins to experience things from within its psychic interior, one can be drawn into this interior. One has only to surrender one’s subject/object mind-set – where this encompasses all discursive thinking – and relinquish one’s discursive goals and ends, in order to be borne along on its fast current. When this occurs, a path begins to open up in the midst of the phenomena. Although the phenomena, under their external aspect, are, as I’ve said, describable by physics, the path that opens up when the phenomena are perceived under their internal aspect is not plotted by the laws of physics. It is plotted by this inner principle of psychic process. Being psychic, this process is not only energic but essentially imbued with meaning. The path, in fact, is plotted by meaning. That is to say, the path that opens for me amongst the phenomena is a path appointed by meaning, meaning which is uniquely apposite for me; it is a meaning uniquely referenced to the key significances of my own life.

If the world is indeed a psychophysical reality, and if things, viewed from within its psychic dimension, are indeed charged with a psychic streaming, then we would expect to find intimations of this inner aspect of things in a range of traditions – not only Daoism. We would expect that Daoism would be only one of various possible points of entry into the mystery of events like Hamilton Downs. I have found in an Australian Aboriginal context another account of the kind of “path” phenomenon that I have just described. This account emanates from the Kimberley region, and revolves around the notion of liyan or le-an, the inner spirit of both persons and land. Karajarri spokesman, Mervyn Mulardy Jnr, speaks of elders looking at people and feeling them not from the outside but from the inside. He speaks of liyan as the spirit or feeling within a person that connects them to the inside of country. “They [the elders] look and feel you from the inside, what they want that person to become. So, basically trying to get their liyan[feeling, spirit] back to what they bin brought up, what they liyan bin bring them, and their spiritual connection to the country.”4 Frans Hoogland, a Dutch-born initiate into Aboriginal Law from the Kimberley, provides a vivid account of the actual experience of le-an. (Hoogland has lived for decades amongst Aboriginal families to the north of Broome, and is a trusted Law man in the region.) The experience that he describes as le-an is, I want to suggest, exactly what we might expect from a psychophysical reality once we have ceased perceiving it from the outside, under its object aspect, and have begun to experience it from the inside, under its subjectival aspect. I shall quote Hoogland’s account at some length here because it provides a precise and detailed phenomenology of the experience.

“In order to experience [this feeling], we have to walk the land. At a certain time for everybody, the land will take over. The land will take that person. You think you’re following something, but the land is actually pulling you. When the land start pulling you, you’re not even aware you’re walking – you’re off, you’re gone. When you experience this, it’s like a shift in your reality. You start seeing things you never seen before…all of a sudden [the training process you have acquired through your upbringing] doesn’t fit anything. Then something comes out of the land, guides you. It can be a tree, a rock, a face in the sand, or a bird.

“You might follow the eagle flying, and the eagle might go somewhere. Through the eagle you can see the red cliffs. Then another thing might grab your attention, and before you know it there’s a path created that is connected to you. It belongs to you, and that is the way you start to communicate with the land, through your path experiences. And that path brings you right back to yourself. You become very aware about yourself. You start to tune finer and finer. Then you become aware that when you’re walking the path, it’s coming out of you – you are connected to it…”5

Hoogland goes on to explain that although the responsiveness of country is ever-present, those of us who have stepped straight out of the materialist context of modern civilization can’t feel it or see it. We bring all the clutter of our possessions with us into country, and what we see around us is mediated by the meanings of these, and all our other, internalised, possessions. So we pass through the landscape not noticing, not feeling, caught up in our own thoughts rather than being open to the intricately activated presence around us. However, as we begin truly to walk the land, becoming more fully present to it, a shift in mind occurs, a shift in mind that drops down to a feeling. When this shift does occur

“we wake up to feeling, what we call le-an here, and we become more alive, we start feeling, we become more sensitive. You start to read the country. Then all of a sudden there’s an opening down there. Before there was only a wall, but now that tree has meaning, now that rock has meaning and all of a sudden that thing takes you. You just follow. Then you wake up, and you see a lot of things and the country starts living for you. Everything is based on that feeling le-an, seeing through that feeling.”6

Hoogland proceeds to offer an illustration of le-an. He tells a story of waking up in his camp one morning near the sea at Coconut Wells and being aware of the feeling and without even waiting for his usual cup of tea, taking off. Without knowing why, he heads straight for the reef. The reef cuts his bare feet but he walks right out onto it. There he finds a large turtle wedged in a rock pool, unable to regain the sea. The turtle is unafraid of him and seems to be summoning him. Hoogland struggles to help the turtle out of the pool and eventually, after much flailing and heaving, succeeds. Before it swims away, the turtle lifts its head out of the water and turns to look at him one last time. Then it’s gone. Seemingly in a single step, the pain in his feet vanished, Frans finds himself back in his camp, having a cup of tea. And that, as he says, is le-an.7

Le-an, as Hoogland describes it, is the experience of being called by world into world, but into world as we have never experienced it before, because we have been viewing it from the outside, as a manifold of objects. To experience the world from within, as Frans explains, is to experience it as a field of communicative meaning, meaning that draws us from one encounter to another. This seems to match the “world hidden within the world”, that Zhuangzi cryptically indicates:

“A boat may be hidden in a creek, or in a bog, safe enough. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry away the boat on his back. The dull of vision do not perceive that however you conceal things, small ones in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them. But if you conceal the whole universe in the whole universe, there will be no place left wherein it may be lost.”8

The only thing of true worth, Zhuangzi seems to be saying – the only thing worth trying to hold onto – is the world itself, under its “hidden” aspect, which is to say, its inner aspect, the psychic aspect of our psychophysical universe. This is the only thing of true worth because it is the thing that brings us to life, that ushers us into a state of numinous streaming and meaning. And this is a thing that, once found, cannot be lost. It is there under everyone’s nose, but no-one can take it from me once I have found it, because this “hidden” world, as revealed to me or my community, belongs exclusively to us and can’t belong to anyone else: its meaning is referenced to meanings that are uniquely salient to us. In other words, to find the world hidden within the world is to experience an opening of the ordinary world into poetic significance.

Dao then, from this point of view, emanates from the unmanifest dimension of the ordinary, manifest world. It is not an occult force, like forces posited in sorcery, that exist in addition to the forces posited by physics, and that are, like them, discovered from the outside. Rather, Dao indicates a way that opens up within the landscape9 – like the famous portals that opened up, for Daoist initiates and immortals, into the interior of the sacred mountains.10In Daoist lore, according to initiate Kristofer Schipper, mountains harboured vast inner labyrinths, residences for gods and spirits. There were times, known as “Hidden Periods”, when a given mountain was open or closed. Without knowledge of these Hidden Periods, an adept would not be able to overcome the resistance of the mountain and this inner world would remain closed to him forever. With knowledge of the Hidden Periods however, the adept would be able to find the “opening” in the mountain’s shield, slip inside, and be totally absorbed into the landscape.11 Although the portals and pathways indicated in Daoism are revealed through ritual protocols, they might nevertheless be understood in terms of le-an, as a kind of opening into the psychic interiority of world. When such paths open – which is to say, as Frans puts it, when the path starts to come out of oneself – one must follow it unquestioningly, even hurrying to do so, lest it should close up again.

What I am suggesting then is that experiences such as those that occurred to many of us at Hamilton Downs – experiences of the world’s poetic responsiveness – make sense if the world is viewed not merely as a physical manifold but as a psychophysical reality.

I have tried elsewhere to make sense, in Western rather than Daoist or Aboriginal terms, of the idea of reality as fundamentally psychophysical rather than purely physical in nature. In my book, For Love of Matter, I seek to show how reality can be psychoactive, and in that sense potentially communicative and responsive to us, while also conforming externally to the laws of physics.12 I call such a view of reality “panpsychist”: “pan” meaning everything, “psyche” meaning soul or subjectivity or mentality. “Panpsychism” is an old philosophical term denoting the view that there is a psychic or mentalistic dimension to everything; that mentality – whether in the form of spirit, subjectivity, soul, purpose, agency, conativity or intentionality – is as primitive an aspect of reality as materiality is. Although panpsychism has been very much a minority tradition in the history of Western philosophy, serious accounts of it have been advanced from time to time.13 My own variant of this venerable view represents the manifest world, as described by physics, as the outward appearance of an inner field of “subjectivity”, in an expanded sense of subjectivity. Reality is, from this point of view, both a unity and a manifold of differentia, a One and a Many. Viewed from within, it is a field of subjectivity, with a conativity (that is to say, a will to realize itself and increase its own existence) of its own and a capacity for communication. From the viewpoint of its finite modes, or those of them that are capable of acting as observers, it is an order of extension, as represented by physics. As a locus of subjectivity and conativity in its own right, the universe is capable of and actively seeks communicative engagement with its finite modes, the Many, or, again, with those of them that are capable of such engagement. Wherever this communicative engagement is actualised, it is manifest in a poeticorder – an order of poetic revelation – that unfolds alongside the causal order. This poetic order, or order of meaning, exceeds the causal order but in no way contradicts it.

But, we might ask, what activates the poetic order? How can one slip under the skin of the world into that streaming that opens up in the midst of the phenomena and carries one from one poetic conjunction of circumstances to another? There are no doubt various techniques and strategies for entering this state, including Daoist arts such as feng shui, tai chi, calligraphy and ritual dances that induce a suspension of discursive thought and an alignment with the flow of energic streaming; sometimes this shift might even occur spontaneously, or as a result of spontaneous lapses into dreamlike or meditative states. But judging from the experience at Hamilton Downs, and other experiences of a kind that would be familiar to many of us, it seems that the poetic order may also be fairly reliably activated by invocation, particularly invocation in narrative form. That is to say, the poetic order seems able to be activated by story, told, or better still enacted, with invocational intent. Perhaps this is what happened at Hamilton Downs: out of the stories that were told in the early phases of the event, by indigenous custodians and colloquium participants alike, a rich narrative context was created. This then provided the poetic terms of reference for the world’s own poetic interjections.

Narrative invocations such as these may be one-off affairs, as at Hamilton Downs. But they might also perhaps be systematically integrated into the daily praxis of an entire community, with the result that members of that community slip routinely between awareness of the world under its external, uncommunicative aspect and awareness of it under its interior, communicative, poetic aspect. In such communities awareness of the world under its poetic aspect might direct individual action and collective affairs as routinely as practical thinking does. Invocational and practical thinking might be so seamlessly intermeshed that there is no tension or contradiction between them. This is the sort of situation in which Frans seems to be dwelling. Whole cultures might be built on a ground of poetic/storied invocation, which serves to “sing up” the world in which the community dwells and make that world an active participant in communal life.14

Indeed, we might ask, is this what Dreaming is? Is it the interior, psycho-active aspect of reality, called forth into communicativeness by narrative address which provides it with the poetic elements by means of which it can speak?

If this is so, why, we might further ask, is story efficacious? Why is it story that activates the poetic order?

In response to the latter question, I’d like to backtrack a bit and start with a different, cosmological question. In the space available here I can offer only the slenderest outline of a reply to this and the former question, but such an outline will suffice to indicate the direction in which I think the present line of inquiry leads.15 The cosmological question is this: why does the observable world – the world under its external aspect, as represented by physics – hang together in the way that it does? Why is the universe auni verse, a unity? Why is space – the frame of physics – unbounded yet unbroken, an indivisible wholeness, a fieldlike manifold? Why doesn’t it break up, granulate, fragment, and hence cease to be the field that it is, the ground for physical existence?16 Physics of course has no answer to this question. It cannot explain why there are laws that hold physical structures together and thereby guarantee the overall cohering of things. From the viewpoint of physics, this cohering is ad hoc, contingent; there is nothing in the nature of physicality per se that appears to underpin it.

If an inner, subjectival dimension is seen as integral to the nature of physicality however, then the necessity of this cohering of physical existence into a unity, a uni verse, an indivisible manifold such as that of space-in-time, is explained. Why? Because subjectivity is, by its very nature, fieldlike, holistic, internally interpermeating, indivisible, unbounded.17 My subjectivity – or call it my psyche – cannot be constituted atomistically, as an aggregate of discrete units of experience, nor even as a continuum of point-like experiences. If psyche is as primal as physicality then – if psyche is immanent in physicality per se – then it is clear that physicality must participate in the indivisible nature of psyche. But why is psyche necessarily indivisible? Why must the subjectival aspect of reality be conceived as a field? This field-likeness of psyche is tied up, I would suggest, with the fieldlikeness of meaning – the intrinsically interleaving and over-layering and interpermeating nature of meaning – and thereby with the constitution of experience through meaning. The kind of holistic internal indivisibility that confers unity on psyche, in other words, is tied up with the necessary indivisibility of meaning. Subjectivity is the medium for a tissue of meanings that cannot be pulled apart without ceasing to be meanings – and without subjectivity thereby ceasing to exist. In other words, to the extent that psyche finds meaning in its experience, its structure must cohere into a unity. This is not of course to say that we might not identify or describe individual experiences by abstracting them from the field of experience – as this sense datum or that itch or this moment of elation. It is just that such experiences cannot actually exist in isolation from the entire field of the subject’s experience, and this field-like structure of subjectivity is a function of meaning.

In speaking of this field-like structure of subjectivity as a function of meaning, I am using the term “meaning” not in a semantical but in a more fundamental sense, to indicate the basic feeling of things mattering – of things having relevance, significance, importance. In other words, I’m using “meaning” in the sense of meaningfulness, the meaningfulness that we impute to life itself when we ponder “the meaning of life”. And meaningfulness in this sense is clearly the province of self. And by self, in turn, I mean not merely the human self but any self-realizing system – any system that maintains itself in existence by its own intentional efforts.18 Selves are defined by interests: they have a constitutive interest in self-maintenance and self-increase. It is relative to the interests of selves that things – particular objects, circumstances – assume significance, relevance, importance. If there were no selves in the world, everything would just be what it is – nothing that occurred would matter more or less than anything else, so nothing would have meaning. But selves, we might notice, are intrinsically structured as story : a self has a beginning, middle and end. It also has a goal, a purpose – its existence has a point, and a very compelling one, namely to survive, to thrive, to postpone its death for as long as possible. The quest of the self is continually beset with dangers and difficulties. This gives existence for the self the element of urgency and suspense that is essential to story. It is self in fact which furnishes the template for story.

This resonance between story and the structure of self presumably explains why stories are compelling only in the telling – why, in other words, stories crumple like punctured balloons and lose their charge as soon as they are ended. Listeners bring the huge suspense of their own existential uncertainty to a story as long as it is being told and while its outcome is as yet unknown; but this investment is lost as soon as the story is finished.

Meaning then, understood as this basic sense of meaningfulness, is tied at its root to story. And story is the province of self.

If world is also “self”, in the sense that it is a psychophysical system with a subjectivity of its own and an impulse to realize and increase its own existence,19 then its inner structure will, like ours, resonate to the structure of story: world will seek to story itself. It may be for this reason that world responds to our narrative address, or that story is efficacious in activating the poetic order.

If it is accepted that a psycho-active dimension is immanent in the physical dimension of the manifest world, then our metaphysical task, as humans, may indeed be to invokethat psycho-active dimension, to sing it up, and allow ourselves to be drawn into story with it. Our invocations will of course have to be phrased in the poetic language ofthings as opposed to the conceptual language of words, since even a psychoactive world presumably does not think, at least in any literal way, in the conceptual language of words. This poetic language is however familiar to us from dreams, where meaning is conveyed predominately through objects and circumstances rather than through abstract discourse. Our narrative address will accordingly best be physically enacted or performed, preferably in situ, at the actual sites that figure in the narratives in question.

In seeking to understand events such as those that occurred at Hamilton Downs in the kind of metaphysical terms that I have suggested here we are entering a field that I would term ontopoetics.20Ontopoetics rests on the premise that there exists an inner aspect of reality which is expressed via a communicativity that coexists with but does not over-ride physical causality. If physics is the study of the causal order, then ontopoetics may be defined as the study of the poetic order, of the meanings that structure the inner aspect of being. If ecology has in recent decades defined the first phase of the re-negotiation of our modern Western relation to reality, ontopoetics might be integral to the second phase.


Freya Mathews is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Program at La Trobe University where she teaches ecological philosophy and co-edits the journal, PAN (Philosophy Activism Nature). Her books include The Ecological Self (Routledge 1991, 1994) and Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, (SUNY Press, 2005).

[email protected]


1.The event at Hamilton Downs has been discussed in Craig San Roque and John Cameron, “Coming into Country: Catalyzing the Process of Social Ecology”, PAN Philosophy Activism Nature 2, 2002. I also included a chapter on Hamilton Downs in my book, Reinhabiting Reality: towards a Recovery of Culture, University of NSW Press, Sydney 2005. The reflections I offer there however are very different from those I am about to offer here, though Daoism is a strong influence in the book, as it is – more explicitly – here.

2. See Stephen L. Field, “In Search of Dragons: the Folk Ecology of Fengshui” in N.J.Girardot, James Miller, Liu Xiaogan (eds), Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, Harvard divinity School, distributed by Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2001, pp 185-200.

3. Wing-Tsit Chan defines ch’i as “material force”, meaning both energy and matter, but also as psychophysical power, associated with blood and breath. As such it is translated as “vital force” or “vital power”. See Wing-Tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 11963, p. 784

4. Monique La Fontaine (compiler), New Legend, a Story of Law and Culture and the Fight for Self-Determination in the Kimberley, published by Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, 2006, p. 175

5. Frans Hoogland in Jim Sinatra and Phin Murphy, Listen to the People, Listen to the Land, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1999, p. 19


7.Ibid p. 21-22

8.Herbert A. Giles 1889 translation Ch 6, par 6, available online.

9. The centrality of this image of ways opening up in the midst of the appearances is evident in the very title of N.J.Girardot, James Miller, Liu Xiaogan (eds), Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within a Cosmic Landscape, op cit.

10.See, for instance, Kristofer Schipper, Taoist Body, translated by Karen Duval, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.

11.Kristofer Schipper, Taoist Body, translated by Karen Duval, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p 173.

12.For Love of Matter: a Contemporary Panpsychism, SUNY Press, Albany NY, 2003.

13.Exponents of panpsychism in the Western tradition have included Spinoza; some of the Romantics, especially Schelling and to some extent Goethe; the process philosophers, most notably Whitehead; and a variety of contemporaries, such as Timothy Sprigge, Christian de Quincey, and David Skrbina. A number of recent ecophilosophers and ecocosmologists assume viewpoints that might be described as panpsychist, insofar as they attribute agency or intentionality to inorganic elements of the natural environment, but since they rarely claim the label “panpsychist”, and since they often eschew metaphysical theorizing in principle, it would take me too far afield to try to sort the panpsychists from the non-panpsychists here. In any case, few of these thinkers take up the idea that reality is not only, so to speak, sentient, but also communicative in the sense indicated here. In other words, few propose that a poetic order is actively constituted through our engagement with the world.

14.Of course, any communicative exchange, whether between person and person or between persons and their world, requires interpretive nous and good judgment: just as we have to refrain from inappropriate assumptions and projections in interpreting the behaviour and speech of other persons, so we have to learn both how to recognize communicative intent and how to interpret intended communiqués in our relations with world. Acknowledging the existence of a poetic order is not an excuse for the kind of narcissistic self-indulgence (not to say psychotic derangement) that interprets the significance of all events in tediously self-mirroring terms. This is why it helps a great deal, in negotiating the poetic order, to have the wisdom and accumulated experience of a society already attuned to the communicative dimension of reality to guide and tutor our intuitions in this connection. For more on this issue, see For Love of Matter, op cit, pp 67-68.

15.I have explored aspects of the ideas that follow in various other works, in particular For Love of Matter, op cit, and Reinhabiting Reality, op cit, particularly Chapter 4. These ideas are further developed in a longer version of the present article entitled “The World Hidden Within the World: a Conversation on Ontopoetics”, The Trumpeter 23, 1, 2007,

16.Of course there are theories in physics which do ascribe a sub-particle foamlike or granular structure to space. But these are not inconsistent with the perfect macro-level cohering of space as the frame for physical process.

17.Historically speaking, the philosopher Henri Bergson has provided the most detailed phenomenology available demonstrating the necessarily holistic and internally indivisible and interpermeating nature of consciousness.

18.Self in this sense can be defined in terms of autopoietic theory. See the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela; but this notion of self-realization as the essence of self goes back at least as far as Spinoza; see my book The Ecological Self, Routledge, London, 1991.

19.See The Ecological Self, ibid.

20.See “The World Hidden Within the World: a Conversation on Ontopoetics”, op cit.

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