In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecological Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Reference Works
  • Complex with Systemic Properties
  • Compartments and Flows
  • Basic, General Rules
  • Models
  • Particularism
  • Patterns
  • Natural Scales
  • Data Analysis
  • Embeddedness and Problematic Boundaries
  • Pragmatism, Partiality and Pluralism
  • Transversality and Inversion

Ecology Ecological Philosophy
Peter Taylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0133


Ecological philosophy does not have a single meaning. To some social thinkers it signifies a worldview that invokes ecology in promoting environmental protection; to others ecology is invoked in relation to a wider realm of social action; to philosophers of science, ecological philosophy may seem to be a synonym for the part of their academic field that focuses on ecology. For this entry in a bibliography on ecology, however, the term is taken to refer to conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science and as such combines theorizing in ecology with some contributions from the philosophy of ecology. Concepts and theorizing in ecology can be viewed in relation to the challenge faced by all ecologists (which within this article will include environmental scientists) of dealing with the complexity of ongoing change in the structure of situations that have built up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded or situated within wider dynamics. Eleven “impulses” regarding the conceptualization of such complexity are reviewed here, arranged roughly in order of when they emerged or were emphasized, with references chosen to provide points of entry into the subsequent history rather than the most recent contributions on a given issue. The categorization of impulses is intended to stimulate readers with an interest in ecology to review their own conceptual framework so as to identify gaps or oversights and to be more self-conscious about how they address (or deflect) conceptual challenges in the field. The categorization might also serve to stimulate critical reflection in subfields of ecology and other disciplines beyond those covered in the article as well as in areas where ecological philosophy is given a different meaning. For example, suppose a philosopher of ethics describes interactions among moral agents in terms of analogies to predation, parasitism, and symbiosis, and advocates sustainable management of those interactions. Following Embeddedness and Problematic Boundaries (the ninth impulse below), one could ask how that ethical theory would be affected if one considers changes in the hidden nonmoral variables and the embeddedness of the interactions in wider social dynamics.

General Reference Works

Most of the sources in this section provide entry points into a heterogeneous selection of topics, addressed from the point of view either of philosophers of science (informed by the history of ecology) or ecologists concerned with clarifying and advancing the theoretical status of the field. The latter emphasis is evident in Pickett, et al. 2007 (first published in 1994), a systematic exposition of the integration of across disciplinary boundaries and levels of organization; the special edition of the journal Synthese reprinted as Saarinen 1982; and the rich history of ecological conceptualizing surveyed in McIntosh 1985 and Schwarz and Jax 2011. These works temper a recurrent early 21st century theme to the effect that ecology was slow to become established as an area of philosophical interest. That theme may reflect what has been published or read by philosophers of science more than it does a shortage of philosophical or conceptual analyses of ecology.

  • Brown, Bryson, Kevin deLaplante, and Kent Peacock, eds. 2011. Philosophy of ecology. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    NNNConceptual issues in ecology and current issues in philosophy of biology, such as inference about causes, integration versus unification, function and teleology, identity and individuation of units, reduction and emergence, and historical science (see Transversality and Inversion). The first half focuses on many of the impulses covered in this article; the second half on applications of ecology to environmental issues.

  • Cuddington, Kim, and Beatrix Beisner, eds. 2005. Ecological paradigms lost: Routes of theory change. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    NNNDividing ecology into broad areas—such as population, epidemiological, and ecosystem ecology—ecologists review the development of major ideas and ecologists and philosophers of science comment on the nature of theory change. The editors conclude that theory change in ecology is gradual or evolutionary, making it unwise for ecologists to “ignore the older history of their discipline” (p. 1).

  • Graham, Michael H., Paul K. Dayton, and Mark A. Hixon. 2002. Special feature: Paradigms in ecology: past, present, and future. Ecology 83.6: 1481–1559.

    NNNArticles by ecological practitioners that address controversial issues, such as density-dependent versus independent regulation of population size, from the point of view of “how paradigms have contributed to the development . . . of ecology” (p. 1479) (The term “paradigm” is used here to connote a school of thought, not to engage in debates about the revolutionary versus evolutionary character of changes in theories in science (see Cuddington and Beisner 2005.)

  • Keller, David R., and Frank B. Golley, eds. 2000. The philosophy of ecology: From science to synthesis. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.

    NNNA selection of publications by ecologists, philosophers, and philosophically minded biologists (beginning with the studies of Möbius from 1880 to 1881 on the oyster bank as a social community). Organized under five headings: Entities and Process in Ecology; Community, Niche, Diversity, and Stability; Rationalism and Empiricism; Reductionism and Holism; and Ecology and Evolution.

  • McIntosh, Robert P. 1985. Theoretical approaches to ecology. In The background of ecology: concept and theory. By Rubert P. McIntosh, 242–288. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511608537.008

    NNNSurveys a wide range of approaches to and criticisms of theory in ecology during the 20th century, including debates by ecologists about the appropriate way to conceive of the scientific enterprise.

  • Pickett, Steward T., Jurek Kolasa, and Clive G. Jones. 2007. Ecological understanding; The nature of theory and the theory of nature. Boston: Elsevier/Academic.

    NNNSystematic development of a framework for understanding science that “can accommodate the variety of seemingly disparate activities that [ecological] scientists practice” (p. viii). An integrated ecology would bring together four perspectives: it would include ecological entities (“Things”), involve processes (“Stuff”), engage in self-maintenance (“Now”), and have history (“Then”) (p. 135). First published in 1994 (New York/Academic).

  • Saarinen, Esa, ed. 1982. Conceptual issues in ecology. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Reidel.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-7796-9

    NNNEssays and critical responses by philosophers and ecologists, providing entry points into conceptual debates, especially those around impulses concerning Basic, General Rules, Particularism, and Data Analysis.

  • Schwarz, Astrid, and Kurt Jax, eds. 2011. Ecology revisited: Reflecting on concepts, advancing science. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-9744-6

    NNNEssays that provide an abundance of entry points to published literature, “facilitate[ing] rapid access to the . . . conceptual content of [ecological] terms [and] providing in-depth information about their philosophical and historical context” (p. 6). The collection serves as an antidote to a common Anglo-American bias in appreciating the range of ecological thinkers. Schwarz (pp. 117–141) proposes that theories in the field oscillate among three conceptions, which correspond in large part to the first three impulses (Complex with Systemic Properties, Compartments and Flows, and Basic, General Rules).

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