At its most general level, the philosophy of ecology is the philosophical study of (1) ecological phenomena and (2) those disciplines that study ecological phenomena.
This definition has certain virtues, but it lacks content until we specify what we mean by 'ecological phenomena' and what sorts of disciplines study such phenomena. The task is complicated by the fact that the term 'ecology' is used in different ways in different contexts.
Ecology is of course a science, but ecology is also identified with a broader philosophical and ethical world-view that in various respects predates modern ecological science. In the 'romantic ecology' of the nineteenth century associated with writers like Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Emerson, it was associated with a rejection of mechanistic, atomistic, and reductionistic science and philosophy that was believed to be responsible for a variety of human and natural ills. This conception carried over into the 'ecology movement' of the 1960s, an environmental movement tied to broader sociocultural movements of that decade (women's liberation, civil rights, and a range of anticonsumerist, anticapitalist, and antimilitarist movements). In recent decades the term has been appropriated by a number of sociopolitical movements and philosophies that seek to diagnose and ameliorate humanity's dysfunctional relationship with nature (deep ecology, social ecology, socialist ecology, ecofeminism, etc.). Do all of these philosophies count as philosophies of ecology? Are they all branches of the philosophy of ecology?
Within academic philosophy, the most common approach to this question tries to draw a distinction between ecological science and the ethical, social, and broader philosophical uses of the term. Proponents of this approach reserve the term 'philosophy of ecology' for the philosophical study of ecological science qua science, with a focus on conceptual issues in fields like behavioral ecology, population ecology, community ecology, evolutionary ecology, and ecosystem ecology. On this view, ecology is conceived as a branch of the natural, biological sciences, and the philosophy of ecology as a specialization within the philosophy of science. Though they may occasionally appeal to the ecological sciences for intellectual support for their various philosophical positions, deep ecology, social ecology, and other radical ecophilosophies are regarded as branches of social theory or environmental philosophy, not the philosophy of ecology.
The approach just described has much to recommend it, but the conception of the philosophy of ecology that will be developed in this article takes a somewhat different tack, one that endorses a broader conception of both the domain of ecology and the philosophy of ecology than is commonly found in the literature. This approach views ecology as a discipline that spans both the natural and social/behavioral sciences. Once this broader conception of ecological science is acknowledged, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw sharp lines between philosophical issues raised by ecological science and philosophical issues raised by a broader ecological worldview.
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