by Mike O’Brien

Potentiality and actuality, the difference between what is possible and what is… tout court. I think a lot about design and about the iterative steps between the first dim glimpses of a realized form, and its final perfection. The process itself is something sublime, impressive and compelling apart from its products. I’ve witnessed it in art, in philosophy, and occasionally in the editing of my own work. Something is trying to manifest itself, and rarely crosses over from the imagined to the sensed world perfectly without some struggle. Botched canvases. Blotted pages. Centuries of mostly wrong arguments, dialectically filtered and distilled. Whether or not the ideal is ever reached, the progress towards that limit is something to behold.

Of course, manifest reality is a rough and tumble affair, and instantiated possibilities do not always stay instantiated forever. Techniques are lost, texts crumble away, songs are forgotten. The fact that they did exist seems to carry a different weight than possibility that they could exist. There are books that don’t exist today because they were never written, and there are books that don’t exist because they were burned. Both absences make the world poorer than it could be (assuming that these books are of net positive value, as some are).

While I’ve toyed with these concepts in many a phenomenology or existentialism class, and in Catholic education before that, they’ve been raised more affectingly of late by more tangible matters. Two of my favourite hobbies are philosophy and pocket knife collecting. You might think that philosophy is more than a hobby; it is a vocation, or a profession. I’m sure that this is true for some, but I don’t take it seriously enough for it to be a vocation (nor do many ostensibly vocational philosophers, who persist because it is their profession), and I don’t get paid enough for it to be a profession (nor do many ostensibly professional philosophers, who persist because it is their vocation). Despite having spent the time and effort (and pain, oh the pain) required to get two philosophy degrees, it’s just something I do from time to time, when there’s nothing better to do. Hence, a hobby.

Knife collecting isn’t a hobby, you might say, it’s just buying things. Well, first, you can also steal them. And second, it mostly involves weighing reasons for not buying them. There is a joyous relief in discovering a fatal flaw in some design that disqualifies it from potential purchase. The spell is broken, and the heart no longer pines for something it does not have. By the measure of time spent, knife collecting, like any trinket collecting, consists primarily in acts of judgement. That is why forums, hobbyist magazines and shop counters are awash in opinions, more so than in facts or advice. Not to disparage opinions, of course, which would be an awkward position for an opinion writer. Opinions are the coin of the realm in collecting, and if enough of them agree on the worth of something, you can discover that thing’s market value. But beyond this market function, opinions are valuable things in themselves. People are willing to suffer all manner of loss and indignity rather than part with them. And, like a rare print or a $5000 letter opener, they are a joy to hold in private and reflect on what discerning taste their owner must have.

The mature collector (I humbly offer myself as an example) does not chase trends, nor measure their possessions against what others deem valuable. At least, not in the kind of collecting that I have in mind, which is a qualitative, curatorial tableau-making, rather than the quantitative goal of a complete set or a winning hand. This may be continuous with a more transactional wheeling and dealing, and indeed financed by it if the collector manages to buy low and sell high when trading in “catch and release” acquisitions. What remains is a reserve of objects that have been removed from economic consideration, the “never sell” jewels of the collection that are deemed to manifest, better than any other comparable object, the values that the collector holds dear. It is a vanity of sorts, a desire to see the virtues we exalt reflected in a display case, like a mirror for the soul. In seeking to love what we see in the mirror and in the collector’s menagerie, an internal locus of judgement makes for a happier life, or at least a less frantic one.

Subtraction, especially for the collector of ample means, is as much of a creative tool as is addition. It is also sometimes a forced decision, as expenses must be covered, or partners’ incredulity assuaged (“How does a grown man own 30 pocket knives and one good shirt?”, a fictional spouse might say). It is these exogenous bottleneck events that reveal the collector’s soul. A pampered gentleman of good fortune might like titanium-handled, ultra-modern, flip-open folding knives, and classic, hand-made, ebony and stag adorned belt knives, and everything in between. So long as he (as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, it is overwhelmingly but not exclusively he) can afford to keep all these things at once, he may be large and manifest attitudinal multitudes. But the cruel crucible of “if that, then not this” can reveal as-yet undiscovered priorities of value buried in the soul. Don’t think I believe pocket knives to be inherently so profound; this also applies to stamps and limited-edition soda bottles.

From the personal drawer of curios, to humanity’s collective inheritance, the question of curation persists. Not just for things like statues, temples and manuscripts, the preservation of which may require material investment and political will marshalled out of discordant opinions as to the value of these treasures. We are, whether we accept it or not, the custodians of nature as well as of our own cultures. Not because we are the rightful masters of the earth, but because we have blundered into a situation where we must decide whether (or, more bleakly and more honestly, how) to continue causing the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history. “We” is, of course, a clumsy generalisation, given the vast discrepancies of economic and political power involved in the processes that brought us to this point. But species membership still binds; disenfranchised humans are still better placed to exercise political power for the benefit of whales and elephants than are whales or elephants themselves.

Most people would probably like to preserve and restore ecosystems currently being destroyed, and bring every endangered or extinguished species back into rude health. I don’t know if that statement is remotely true, now that I think of it; if mosquitoes, blue jays and poison ivy went extinct, I don’t see anyone trying to resurrect them (yes, mosquitoes feed birds, but if I can give up cheese, then they can damn well give up mosquitoes). The point is that the ideal of preserving all aspects of the ecological status quo, to say nothing of its pre-industrial flourish, is not feasible, all things considered. Hence, the curatorial responsibility; if this, then not that. The private collector is answerable only to their own to their own tastes and pocketbook, but humanity qua planetary shepherd needs some kind of objectively defensible, or at least articulable, logic for drawing up the manifest of the ark.

As my window shopping for fancy pocket knives progressed, and my tastes became more defined and personalised, I noticed that many of my favourite designs were, like most of Earth’s species, discontinued. On the one hand, this was a relief, because I could not buy them (not at secondary market prices, anyway. I am absurd, but not a sucker). On the other hand, it was unfortunate that the design choices and artistic flourishes which I appreciated were no longer deemed worthy of serialized manifestations. Maybe the market, an ecosystem of sorts, no longer furnished a niche for the forms of being that I valued. Maybe the processes of production were no longer able muster the materials and energy to sustain the reproduction of those forms.

The laments were not long-lived, however. More searching (there is always more searching) would reveal something in current or upcoming production that manifested the excellences that I thought had disappeared with discontinued forms, often better manifested than before, with extra excellences to boot. Designs with high fitness tend to re-emerge, sometimes completely independently from the lineage of previous appearances. In the case of my preferred baubles, it helps that the design (the holding part, the cutting part, the folding part) is highly constrained, and there are only so many good ways to execute it. Materials are another matter (that is tautological, and a pun, and I intended neither. Serendipity is a better writer than I am). They keep getting better, because metallurgical technology changes faster than the anatomy of the human hand. I am impressed by the new alloys and composites, but I desire to understand them more than to possess them.

I can fathom the possibility that, at some point in the future, I might commission a custom knife. I arrived at this point after moving from the scanning the countless multitudes of very objectively good production models, to identifying a few designers (this is very much a domain of fashion) whose design sense resonated with mine, via collaborations they had done with manufacturers. The thought of a perfectly tailored item in my possession makes me happy. The thought of my design sensibilities being widely manifested in other people’s possession makes me a different kind of happy. There are things I want to have, and there are things I want for there to be. I like having a cat in my house (most of the time), but in a much more profound sense I would like for there to be rainforests in places I’ll never visit. In the meantime, I tinker with my almost-perfect knives until nothing about them irks me, and I make my little lifestyle choices that help the extinctions to grind imperceptibly slower.

This paragraph is the transition paragraph.

I had the good fortune recently of attending a Zoom conference given by one Brendan Cline, an ecological ethicist at California State University, Channel Islands (sounds like a lovely place). Ecological philosophy talks are always a crapshoot (not to be confused with a shitshow, which only some are). This was one of the good ones, not only interesting but interesting in a specifically philosophical way. Specifically is an apt word to use, because Cline discussed the difficulties of using the intrinsic value of species as a goal of ecological conservation. The first difficulty being that species might not exist, as any attempt to define them objectively seems to weather scrutiny badly. This is an old concern, going back at least as far as Darwin, but for conservation ethics it isn’t merely a classificatory irritant; the un-realness of species means that counting the number of species saved is a fundamentally flawed measure of the value preserved by conservation.

Cline’s proposal, which can be found in his most recent paper, “Irreplaceable Design: On the Non-Instrumental Value of Biological Variation” (1), is to abandon the mere existence of a (purported) species as the basis of its intrinsic value, and instead recognize the distinctness of the design  manifested by that species as the source of its value. Not to say that it is the only source of value; we can still weigh the well-being of individual organisms, the instrumental value of ecosystem functioning, and the inalienable personhood rights of sentient beings, if that’s your bag. But Cline’s proposal attempts to explain the intuition that there is something beyond those considerations, some inherent value in the uniqueness of each form of life, such that the disappearance of all members of a species is qualitatively worse than the disappearance of all but one member (or of some minimally viable reproducing number).

I won’t try to lay out his whole argument here, as he writes wonderfully and any interested readers will be well rewarded for reading his paper. The gist, relevant to the train of thought on which this column began, is that what we really value in the preservation of species is diversity of design (not intelligent design, but the awe-inspiring clockwork of evolutionary biology). There is a prudential argument that we don’t understand, or are not capable of harnessing, the full intricacy and multidimensionality of natural processes, and as a result we lose incalculably more than we can imagine when a natural manifestation of design disappears. We may create chimeras and monsters by tinkering with the few aspects of biology that we have learned to manipulate, but we are ignorant of the unknown unknowns still lurking in nature. This is one of my chief concerns, but it is not the prime focus of Cline’s paper, as it is a matter of instrumental value.

The valuing of design uniqueness, rather than welfare or the proliferation sentient life, seems like an odd kind of morality, and Cline admits that the value that he is trying to identify might be aesthetic rather than moral. Aesthetic values are of course still normative values, and not necessarily less weighty than moral ones. Other cultures, historical and potential, may treat beauty as more than just a normatively weak frivolity. The Greeks of Nietzsche’s and others’ imagination certainly took aesthetic imperatives seriously, to the detriment of what we moderns would consider moral considerations. (Cline is careful to point out that “design value” doesn’t necessarily mean “beauty”).

Cline’s emphasis on a non-moral normative motivation for ecological conservation was quite a revelation to me. In my own thinking about my ecological anxieties, I came to the conclusion some years ago that my main valuations were not moral (at least as regards the loss of species, or of a kind of uniqueness imperfectly tracked by “species thinking”), but rather epistemic and, to perhaps coin a term, sapientic. Following Wittgenstein’s adage that philosophy begins in wonder, the wonder-inspiring manifestations of nature’s literally incomprehensible design genius are quite proper objects of care for a philosopher. What Cline’s work facilitated was a consideration of that care as a normative valuation that need not communicate with or translate to moral value to justify its importance. It resonates nicely with my growing conviction that ecological ethics needs more Nietzsche if it’s ever going to think clearly about humanity’s role in choosing what form of Nature to curate for the future. This is particularly true for contemplating the value of created forms of life; creating new values is the Nietszchean task par excellence, and Cline’s proposals are an interesting step towards placing this work within normative ecological thinking.

(1) Cline, B. (2020). Irreplaceable Design: On the Non-Instrumental Value of Biological Variation. Ethics and the Environment 25 (2): 45-72. Note that the comments in this column are based on the pre-print edition of Cline’s paper available via the Google Drive link on this page:

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