Anthony Weston in class, Spring 2012.
|Born||Spring Green, Wisconsin|
|Era||20th / 21st-century philosophy|
Anthony Weston is an American philosopher, teacher, and writer. He is author of widely used primers in critical thinking and ethical practice and has written a variety of unconventional books and essays on philosophical topics.
Weston was born in 1954 and grew up in the Sand County region of southwestern Wisconsin, country identified with the conservationist Aldo Leopold (in his Sand County Almanac) and the architect and visionary Frank Lloyd Wright, a strong influence on his father's family. He is a 1976 Honors graduate of Macalester College, and received his PhD in Philosophy in 1982 from the University of Michigan, where he wrote his PhD dissertation with Frithjof Bergmann on "The Subjectivity of Values". He taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for ten years, and subsequently in Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Elon University, where he has won the University's premiere awards for both teaching and scholarship, as well as abroad in Costa Rica, Western Australia, and British Columbia.
Weston's philosophical project as a whole advances an expansive "toolbox" for critical, creative, and constructive thinking, especially for purposes of social and environmental re-imagination and pragmatic ethical practice. The social, ethical, even ontological problems that we so often take as "given" are more often, he argues, products of underlying conditions, practices, and choices. This view may be identified with deconstruction, but too often, Weston argues,
- the genuine promise of this critical move is betrayed by the thinnest of follow-ups. We need to give the same kind of attention to the re-construction of genuinely better alternatives in the new space of freedom that broadly deconstructive moves create. ("A 21st Century Philosophical Toolbox", Keynote address for the Atlantic Region Philosophers Association Conference, 10/16/09)
This reconstructive project calls on a set of skills and concepts less often recognized and valued in philosophy. Inspired in particular by the pragmatic social philosophy of John Dewey, Weston envisions open-ended, generative, imaginative and experimental thinking, modeled on crafts such as building or performance and empirical science, gradually displacing more category-bound and formal thinking that tends to be more reactive and critical. In a variety of essays and books he lays out key concepts such as "the hidden possibilities of things" – the sense that the world has much more depth and possibility than it may seem – and correlatively the need to thematize and resist self-validating reduction, the process by which some being or some part of the world are reduced to less than they might be, and then that very reduction is taken as an excuse and validation for itself, the obliterated possibilities now thoroughly out of view. Correspondingly, the task of knowing and valuing is not to "read off" the nature and possibility of things off the world as it is "given", but to actively engage the world, to "venture the trust" to create new kinds of openings in interaction with the world within which deeper possibilities might emerge.
Settled modes of value issue in the familiar ethics, of persons for example, but the "originary" areas of ethics, as Weston calls them, are only now taking shape, and are not a matter of extension or application of pre-given principles but rather the co-creation or co-constitution of new values. In environmental ethics in particular, Weston argues that we stand at the very beginning of our exploration. At the same time, he also argues for a "multicentric" approach to reconstituting the human relation to the more-than-human world, as opposed to the "mono-centrism" that could either be human-centered (anthropocentric) or larger-than-human but still "centered" in the sense that one dimension and model for values determines who or what morally counts and why.
Another key theme is the centrality of the built and lived world to the shaping of thought, as well as vice versa. Philosophers tend to assume a one-way connection—that thought determines world—while philosophy's critics, such as doctrinaire Marxists, see it just the other way around. In Weston's view the connection goes both ways, and is genuinely dialectical. A world or a set of concrete practices represent the enactment of certain ideas, but they also shape our ideas in turn. The cultural enactment and perpetuation of anthropocentrism is one good example. But this is, in his view, a good thing, and a necessary one: it gives thought an anchor, allows us to work out ideas concretely, and gives us a lever for philosophical change as well: by actually changing the world. Once again, the world as it is not somehow the limit of possibility.
- The world shapes our concepts but does not determine them; likewise our concepts shape our thought but do not determine it. The upshot is conceptual room to move. Rather than analyzing concepts as if they were fixed read-offs of reality, we can reshape and relocate them, and by so doing remake thought and the world itself. ("A 21st Century Philosophical Toolbox")
Finally, just as ethical practice becomes intelligent, creative, critical engagement with problematic situations and possibilities rather than "puzzle-solving", so even the widely taught and conventional field of critical thinking becomes something more than a matter of testing someone else's arguments for "fallacies", but rather a constructive and open-ended process of framing one's own arguments and energetically recasting and exploring others' lines of thought.
- Philosophy is itself a mode of world-making. We need to embrace philosophy as an experimental and invitational mode of practice in that light.
Weston has called his overall project "Pragmatopian", adapting Charlotte Perkins Gilman's term for the project of her visionary novels: radical but experimental utopias. Philosophy as he tries to practice it, Weston has said, is a kind of "pragmatopian dare".
- A Rulebook for Arguments (Hackett Publishing Company, 1986; 4th edition, 2009, ISBN 0-87220-954-7) now in its 4th edition and translated into ten languages: this critical-thinking handbook is Weston's best known book.
- A Workbook for Arguments, co-authored with David Morrow (Hackett Publishing Company, 2011, ISBN 1-60384-549-6). Textbook expansion of Rulebook.
- Creativity for Critical Thinkers (Oxford University Press, 2007; ISBN 0-19-530621-X)
- Toward Better Problems (Temple University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-87722-948-1), a systematic attempt at Deweyan reconstruction in contemporary ethics.
- A Practical Companion To Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1997; 4th edition, 2011 ISBN 0-19-973058-X). A short guide to "the basic attitudes and skills that make ethics work".
- A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (Oxford University Press, 2001; 3rd edition, 2012; ISBN 0-19-530967-7). A full-scale textbook for ethics in a pragmatic key.
- Creative Problem-Solving in Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2007; ISBN 0-19-530620-1)
- Back to Earth: Tomorrow's Environmentalism (Temple University Press, 1994, ISBN 1-56639-237-3). An attempt to recover the experience of life among other-than-human beings and within nature that grounds our ethical engagement with them.
- An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-512204-6), with essays by David Abram, Val Plumwood, Holmes Rolston III, and Jim Cheney, with Preface and "Going On" sections as well a companion essay by Weston.
- The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher: Essays on the Edges of Environmental Ethics (State University of New York Press, 2009, ISBN 0-7914-7669-3). A collection of some of Weston's key essays in the field from the professional literature.
- Mobilizing the Green Imagination: An Exuberant Manifesto (New Society Publishers, 2012, ISBN 0-86571-709-5). This is a book of practical but sweeping environmental visions, Weston's "pragmatopian imagination" fully applied, or as the book's cover puts it, "elegant and audacious possibilities that push the boundaries of contemporary environmentalism".
- Jobs for Philosophers (Xlibris, 2004; ISBN 1-4134-4009-6) is a collection of reviews of books on themes such as "reinventing the culture", the "natural history of values", and "de-anthropocentrizing the world". It is the closest to a general methodological self-accounting that Weston has yet offered, though it is also in an extremely playful and indirect mode, for one thing because these books actually don't exist (except for the book reviewed first, which is Jobs for Philosophers itself). The title is a play on the American Philosophical Association's newsletter for academic positions in philosophy. This is a self-published book.
- How to Re-Imagine the World: A Pocket Handbook for Practical Visionaries (New Society Publishers, 2007; ISBN 0-86571-594-7)
Weston has written over fifty essays and reviews in the above fields as well as others such as philosophy of education and the philosophy of space exploration. Some of the more noted and often-reprinted of these are (original appearances only):
- "Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics", Environmental Ethics 7:4 (1985): 321-339. 
- "Forms of Gaian Ethics", Environmental Ethics 9:3 (1987): 121-134. 
- "Radio Astronomy as Epistemology: Some Philosophical Reflections on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence", Monist 71:1 (1988): 88-100.  This is a less surprising theme in Weston's work than it may seem, given his interest in other-than-human "contact" right here on Earth; it also emerges in his recent teaching and in the last chapters of both The Incompleat Ecophilosopher and Mobilizing the Green Imagination.
- "Uncovering the 'Hidden Curriculum': A Laboratory Course in Philosophy of Education", APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy 90:2 (Winter 1991): 36-40. 
- "Non-anthropocentrism in a Thoroughly Anthropocentrized World", The Trumpeter 8:3 (1991): 108-112. 
- "Before Environmental Ethics", Environmental Ethics 14 (1992): 323-340. 
- "Self-Validating Reduction: Toward a Theory of the Devaluation of Nature", Environmental Ethics 18 (1996): 115-132. 
- "Instead of Environmental Education", in Bob Jickling, ed., Proceedings of the Yukon College Symposium on Ethics, Environment, and Education (Whitehorse, Y.T.: Yukon College, 1996).
- "Risking Philosophy of Education", Metaphilosophy 29 (1998): 145-158. 
- "Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette: Toward an Ethics-Based Epistemology in Environmental Philosophy" (with Jim Cheney), Environmental Ethics 21 (1999): 115-134. 
- "Multi-Centrism: A Manifesto", Environmental Ethics 26 (2004): 25-40. 
- "For a Meta-Ethics as Good as Our Practice", in Elizabeth Burge, editor, "Negotiating Dilemmas of Practice: Applied Ethics in Adult Education", special issue of New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education (Jossey-Bass, 2009). 
Critics argue that Weston's notions of "originary ethics" and "reconstructive engagement" offer little or no concrete guidance, especially in less-than-optimal situations in which choices nonetheless must be made. Though Weston has challenged what he has called "dilemma-ism" as a method of doing ethics or as an expectation about the necessary structure of ethical problems, sometimes we do have genuine dilemmas that need to be addressed. Weston's commitment to opening up new possibilities may open up a range of problematic and even disturbing possibilities as well. Some more definite and defended limits seem necessary.
Second, when philosophy becomes a species of imagination and improvisation and engagement, it is not clear that it retains any (or enough) distinctive professional identity. Although officially Weston has been a professor of philosophy for his entire professional life, much of his actual teaching and writing has been in interdisciplinary settings or beyond: he has co-taught with biologists and ecologists and now splits his time between Philosophy and Environmental Studies Departments at Elon, working as well with astronomers, Zen masters and in environmental education programs as well as on design and social change projects such as Hart's Mill Eco-Village. It's unclear whether he is really a philosopher or more like a jack-of-all-trades who has made a secure home in philosophy departments a comfortable base for somewhat undisciplined adventurings.
Third, Weston's ethics textbooks in particular take substantive but incompletely acknowledged and defended positions in ethical philosophy. Weston's response seems to be that any practical textbook necessarily does so. The usual textbooks are less troublingly substantive only because the substance tends to be the taken-for-granted norms. Weston's method seems to be to try to reconstruct certain fields the long way around, by rewriting their textbooks, modeling a quite different approach in practice and therefore inviting new kinds of students into the field and perhaps also reshaping their teachers' views without arguing in the usual way against the assumed norms. This may be effective (or just remarkably patient) but it is not how philosophers usually think they should proceed.
- Edgar Tafel, About Wright: An Album of Recollections about Frank Lloyd Wright by Those Who Knew Him (Wiley, 1993), pp. 97-99; William Drennan, Death in a Prairie house: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p. 163; Anthony Weston, "Return of Thanks", in Mobilizing the Green Imagination (New Society Publishers, 2012), p. 168.
- University of Michigan Department of Philosophy, Pre-1990 Graduate Placement List, http://www.lsa.umich.edu/philosophy/graduate/placement/pre1990
- David Hibbard, "Faculty receive awards at annual luncheon", Elon University E-Net, 5/9/2007 http://www.elon.edu/e-net/Note.aspx?id=921569
- Ben Hale, Review of Anthony Weston's The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher, in Social Theory and Practice 38 (2012): 160-164.
- Jickling, B., Lotz-Sisitka, H., O'Donoghue, R., Ogbuigwe. A. (2006) Environmental Education, Ethics, and Action. Nairobi: UNEP. pp. 12–19. http://cjee.lakeheadu.ca/public/journals/22/Ethics_book_english.pdf
- Jim Cheney, Review of Anthony Weston's Back to Earth: Tomorrow's Environmentalism in Environmental Ethics 18 (1996): 91-94.
- Andrew Light and Eric Katz, Environmental Pragmatism (Routledge, 1996), p. 3-4, 10.
- Patrick Curry, "Multicentrism", in his Ecological Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), pp. 156-158.
- Christopher Preston, "Environmental Knowledge: Courteous Yet Subversive, Grounded Yet Surprising", Ethics, Policy and Environment 14 (2011): 91-96. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21550085.2011.561601
- "A 21st Century Philosophical Toolbox", http://faculty.capebretonu.ca/philosophy/arpa.html
- See "Courses Taught" at http://www.elon.edu/directories/profile/?user=weston.
- Eric Katz, "Envisioning a De-Anthropocentrised World: Critical Comments on Anthony Weston's 'The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher'". Ethics, Policy and Environment 14: 97-101. http://philpapers.org/rec/KATEAD. Andrew Light, "Environmental Pragmatism as Philosophy or Metaphilosophy? On the Weston-Katz Debate", in Andrew Light and Eric Katz, editors, Environmental Pragmatism (Routledge, 1996), p. 325-338.
- Secondary Faculty, Department of Environmental Studies, Elon University, http://www.elon.edu/e-web/academics/elon_college/environmental_studies/faculty.xhtml
- Experiential Education on the Edge: SETI Activities for the College Classroom, 2012, Astronomy Education Review, Volume 11, Issue 1, http://www.portico.org/Portico/#!journalAUSimpleView/tab=PDF?cs=ISSN_15391515?ct=E-Journal%20Content?auId=ark:/27927/pgg3ztfbs8j
- Kaihan: Newsletter of the North Carolina Zen Center, Winter 2009, http://www.nczencenter.org/Pages/KaihanPages/Winter%202009.pdf
- "Notes for Teachers", A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (second edition, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 444.