Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated

22 March 2011


What follows is a reformulated version of my Integral Ecology post, rewritten to conform to the changed terminology that I adopted in my post Metaphysical Ecology.

I have substantially expanded on some of the ideas below in a further post, Ecological Temporality. .

Food webs are basic structures of ecology, with the latter understood in specifically biological sense.

On the Extension of Concepts and Ecology sensu stricto

In this forum I have had occasion to attempt the extension of some familiar concepts, as in order to achieve an understanding of the most abstract, general, and comprehensive features of the world and our experience of the world we must transcend the strictly parochial and particular origins of our ideas in limited and local circumstances and re-define our concepts without reference to anything specific or particular. Such extended concepts involve a transition from the practical and the scientific to the abstract and the philosophical. /span>

I count this conceptual development as part of the Copernican Revolution, which usually takes the form of seeking non-anthropocentric formulations of ideas with anthropocentric origins. In this spirit I have suggested that a conception of metaphysical history can be drawn out of traditional historiography. (I have further formulations in the same spirit that I plan to make available in the fullness of time.)

Since man does not live by bread alone, the bio-ecological structures of human experience involve more factors than the food web illustrated above.

In the same spirit of what I have called metaphysical history I would now like to introduce the idea of metaphysical ecology as an extension, expansion, extrapolation, and generalization of ecology as the term is usually understood and employed. That is to say, metaphysical ecology is a philosophical ecology, in which we have passed from the concrete, scientific conceptions of ecology in the narrow sense to the abstract, philosophical conceptions of ecology in a philosophical sense. /span>

Firstly, I want to briefly consider what ecology has meant heretofore. What is ecology in its initially narrow meaning? What is ecology sensu stricto? There has been some lack of precision in the definition of ecology, so these definitions have lacked the formal exactitude that one might expect (or hope) from the biological sciences. Nevertheless, there have been enlightening even if not formal definitions of ecology.

Another biologically specific conception of ecology.

Ecology, unlike traditional history, is not a specifically anthropocentric concept. On the contrary, a narrow definition of ecology is admirably non-anthropocentric. For example, here is the first sentence of What is Ecology?:

“Ecology is concerned with the relationships between plants and animals and the environment in which they live.”

What is Ecology? D. F. Owen, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 1

This definition is biologically specific and not anthropocentric, so the primary task of extending and expanding our conception of ecology is not one of disposing with anthropocentric prejudices but of formulating a definition of ecology that is not specifically biological.

A generalization of ecological thinking to cosmology: galactic ecology.

A somewhat more comprehensive definition of ecology can be found at the Biology Online website:

(1) Ecological science: the science concerned with the interactions of living organisms with each other and with their environment, also called bionomics.

(2) A branch of biology that deals with the distribution, abundance and interactions of living organisms at the level of communities, populations, and ecosystems, as well as at the global scale.

(2) The system within the environment as it relates to organisms living in it.

(3) A branch of sociology that deals with the relations of human beings with their physical and social environment, also called as human ecology.

This definition of ecology includes the extended sense of ecology employed by Urie Bronfrenbrenner, which we will consider in more detail below, because Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (sometimes called the bio-ecological model) represents an extant generalization of ecology.

Most intriguingly among the traditional definitions of ecology, there is Ernst Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence. (There is a wonderful discussion of this in The Science of the Struggle for Existence: On the Foundations of Ecology by Gregory J. Cooper, one volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology; all of the volumes of this series are of the greatest interest.) Here is Haeckel’s definition of the discipline he himself founded:

“By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature — the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including, above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contract — in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.”

Haeckel was the one who introduced the concept of ecology, so his definition is of particular interest. While it is expressed in a nineteenth century idiom that is redolent of the idea of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson saw it), Haeckel’s definition of ecology will prove suggestive in a formulation of battlespace in terms of metaphysical ecology. Although Haeckel’s intriguing definition of ecology was not Bronfenbrenner’s point of departure for a generalization of ecology, I mention it here because I will return to it below.

Introducing the Concept of Metaphysical Ecology

In its most common signification, ecology is narrowly biological in conception. The reference to the inorganic context of life is there only because life always occurs in an inorganic context. Life is the focus. Bronfenbrenner’s exposition of bio-ecology, or ecological systems theory, represents a significant generalization of the concept of ecology, and this generalization requires that we arrive at an abstract conception of ecology in order to understand its relevance to non-specifically biological subject matter. What is the implied abstract conception of ecology? I call the implied conception metaphysical ecology.

The extension of the idea of ecology already pursued to date has been formulated in the context of the fields of social work and psychotherapy by Urie Bronfenbrenner, especially in his book The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA., 1979). This is a systematic exposition of what he calls ecological systems theory, which systematically places individuals within progressively more comprehensive and inter-related social structures.

Bronfenbrenner formulated the following bioecological categories:

The Micro-system: The setting in which the individual lives.

The Meso-system: Relations between microsystems or connections between contexts.

The Exosystem: Links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate context.

The Macrosystem: The culture in which individuals live.

The Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course, as well as sociohistorical circumstances.

Since I already have a conception of metaphysical history that accounts for “events and transitions over the life course,” I would eliminate the category of chronosystem from the subdivisions of bio-ecology, leave open the litany of bio-ecological categories for the possibility of yet more comprehensive formulations (e.g., larger social constructs than cultures, such as civilizations), and further articulate Bronfenbrenner’s singular chronosystem as metaphysical history by formulating its subdivisions on a similar plan to that of ecological systems theory, something like this:

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded.

This in turn suggests a further extrapolation of bio-ecological categories in place of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem:

Metaphysical system (or Metaphysical Ecology): Ultimately, the metaphysical system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of bio-ecological thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

With this revision in mind, I would lay out Bronfenbrenner’s schema of bio-ecological categories as follows:

The Micro-system

The Meso-system

The Exosystem

The Macrosystem

The Metaphysical System

As I noted above, Bronfenbrenner does not take as his point of departure Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence, and then proceed to extend and expand this definition. I would like to suggest re-thinking Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory in terms of Haeckel’s definition, because in this case bio-ecology becomes an extension and expansion of the struggle for existence. When we think of ecology from a point of view of its extrapolation to a completely comprehensive conception of metaphysical ecology, Haeckel’s definition remains valid — even at its most comprehensive level of metaphysical ecology, ecology is still about the struggle for existence — and so we see in retrospect that Haeckel himself had a highly abstract and comprehensive conception of ecology. This suggests the possibility of the application of integral of ecology to human struggles in the form of war.

From Battlefield to Battlespace

The earliest known battles of human history, which followed upon the emergence of settled agricultural societies, literally took place in open fields; there was, from the beginnings of conflict organized under the auspices of civilization, a field of battle, so that the term battlefield was literal. Over time, and with the increasing sophistication and complexity of civilization, battle also became more sophisticated and complex.

The war chariot was a game-changing weapons system of early human history, but optimal use of chariots required a flat and level battlefield.

Col. T. N. Dupuy wrote of the physical terrain of battle in early warfare:

“The phalanx and its individual units were capable of limited maneuvers in combat formation. In battle the invariable deployment was a long, solid line with narrow intervals through which the psiloi — light troops — could pass. Battle was waged — usually by mutual accord — on the flattest ground available, since movement over rough ground created gaps that could be fatal to the cohesion of the formation.”

The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Colonel T. N. Dupuy, Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980, p. 11

This is attested in ancient sources, as, for example, in Book 7 of The Histories Herodotus quotes the Persian Mardonius as saying to his king:

“…the Greeks are pugnacious enough, and start fights on the spur of the moment without sense or judgement to justify them. When they declare war on each other, they go off together to the smoothest and levelest bit of ground they can find, and have their battle on it — with the result the even the victors never get off without heavy losses, and as for the losers — well, they’re wiped out.”

The chariot also experienced its optimal operations on flat, level ground, and while there was, as Dupuy notes, a social consensus to fight battles on wide, level fields — not unlike the parade ground upon which such soldiers would have been drilled — there were also instances in antiquity of armies denying flat, level ground to forces that required such conditions for optimal operationality. The perpetually open flank of a battle fought in wide and open country also established norms for the order of battle that were impracticable in forests, jungles, mountains, and other forms of difficult terrain that would figure more prominently in the later history of war.

The efficacy of the phalanx formation in battle demanded a high degree of drill so that the whole column could move as one. This worked best on flat and level ground, making the battlefield (understood literally) its optimal theater of operations.

When, after the Industrial Revolution, war was also industrialized, and the world experienced its first great industrialized war with the First World War (the “proof of concept” of industrialized war), battles could be fought for months at a time over multiple and distinct kinds of terrain, and could involve resources that had little to do with the literal physical space in which combat occurred (for example, with the introduction of radio, the electro-magnetic spectrum became increasingly important). In response to this growing complexity of the battlefield, contemporary theory of war employs formulations in terms of battlespace rather than battlefield. The formulation of the idea of battlespace is a conceptual innovation that reflects the systematic exploitation of the nexus of science and technology that characterizes institutions after the Industrial Revolution. A fully articulated doctrine of battlespace is a conceptual improvement over the continued use of “battlefield,” but can go beyond battlespace to the yet more comprehensive conception of battle ecology.

From Battlespace to Battle Ecology

We can employ the concepts of metaphysical ecology to bring more analytical clarity to the contemporary concept of battlespace. I suggest that the very idea of battlespace is unnecessarily limiting, not least because it is a spatial concept, and we can formulate a much more comprehensive concept. The metaphysical ecology surrogate for battlespace (or, rather, the more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure within which the concept of battlespace can be located) is what I will call battlespace ecology.

The DOD defines battlespace as follows:

“The environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, or complete the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and the included enemy and friendly forces; facilities; weather; terrain; the electromagnetic spectrum; and the information environment within the operational areas and areas of interest.”

The DOD further defines battlespace awareness as follows:

“Knowledge and understanding of the operational area’s environment, factors, and conditions, to include the status of friendly and adversary forces, neutrals and noncombatants, weather and terrain, that enables timely, relevant, comprehensive, and accurate assessments, in order to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and/or complete the mission.”

The Marine Corps’ Marine Corps Operations MCDP 1-0 (Forward by J. L. Jones, General, United States Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 2001) defines battlespace as follows:

“Battlespace is the environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and accomplish the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain within the assigned AO and the commander’s area of interest. Battlespace is conceptual—a higher commander does not assign it. Commanders determine their own battlespace based on their mission, the enemy, and their concept of operations and force protection. They use their experience and understanding of the situation and mission to visualize and adapt their battlespace as the situation or mission changes. The battlespace is not fixed in size or position. It varies over time, and depends on the environment, the commander’s mission, and friendly and enemy actions. Battlespace is normally comprised of an AO, area of influence, and area of interest.”

In the above, “AO” stands for “area of operations.”

The concept of battlespace and knowledge of the battlespace (which latter is the formal surrogate of the intuitive experience, i.e., the lived experience of the battlespace) as defined above is clearly a more comprehensive conception than the traditional concept of battlefield, yet its formulation in spatial terms implies conceptual limitations, even if we allow for abstract spaces such as intelligence and the electro-magnetic spectrum.

The Marine Corps definition is admirably comprehensive, but it can be given further conceptual rigor and can be assimilated to a comprehensive conceptual infrastructure by placing battlespace within battle ecology. In battle ecology, the individual items mentioned in the definition — “air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain” — can be treated as concrete or abstract spaces that find their place within a comprehensive ecology.

Bronfenbrenner pioneered a comprehensive conception of ecology, and while most of his formulations are embedded within therapeutic concerns, the imperative of arriving at an absolutely general conception applicable to all experience is implicit throughout Bronfenbrenner’s text. Here is Bronfenbrenner in a passage that is as applicable to battlespace as to psychodynamic structures, in criticism of the tradition he inherited and which he sought to transcend:

“…even when the environment is described, it is in terms of a static structure that makes no allowance for the evolving processes of interaction through which the behavior of participants in the system is instigated, sustained, and developed.”

Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Chapter 2, “Basic Concepts,” p. 17

While the Marine Corps definition given above does allow that battlespace is not fixed and varies over time, the greater generality and comprehensivity of battle ecology systematically integrates the changing factors of the battlespace into the personal temporality of the soliders within the battlespace, the temporality of history in which these events are embedded, and all levels of temporality between subjective time-consciousness and objective history.

This graphic focuses on the role of the individual soldier and his lived experience of battle.

The concept of battle ecology (or, if you prefer, battlespace ecology) can be formulated in parallel with the formulations of Bronfenbrunner’s bio-ecology, specifically:

Micro-battlespace: The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Meso-battlespace: Relations between micro-battlespaces or connections between battlespace contexts.

Exo-battlespace: Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Macro-battlespace: The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Metaphysical battlespace: Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The specifically temporal aspects of battlespace ecology can also be formulated in parallel to the formulations of metaphysical temporality above:

Micro-battlespace temporality: The temporal setting in which the soldier fights. (This is what Husserl called subjective time-consciousness, and forms the basis of all lived experience.)

Meso-battlespace temporality: Relations between micro-battlespace temporalities or connections between temporal contexts of the battlespace. (If we accept Husserl’s treatment of internal time consciousness as characterizing micro-battlespace temporality, then meso-battlespace temporality embodies what Husserl called inter-subjectivity.)

Exo-battlespace temporality: Links between temporal battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active combat role and the individual soldier’s immediate temporal battlespace context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded, which is not a specifically military concept (nor specifically strategic or diplomatic, etc.), but which is the same metaphysical temporality I have been developing in several posts to this forum — i.e., the most comprehensive and abstract conception of time, beginning with the individual’s subjective time-consciousness, coincides with Metaphysical history.

One important lesson of this last conception — that of metaphysical temporality as the ultimate setting of less comprehensive temporalities in which battlespace ecology is contextualized — is that any specific and particular conceptual inquiry, when pursued to the farthest reaches of abstraction, generality, and formality converges with other specific and particular inquiries that also have this purified conception as the natural teleology, if you will, of intellectual inquiry. The further lesson of this observation, in turn, is that all specific, particular, concrete, empirical, and peculiar conceptions ultimately have abstract and general ideas as the conceptual setting that gives them meaning. In other words, there is a conceptual ecology also that obeys many of the same principles of conceptual extrapolation as formulated above.

The distinct microsystems of battle ecology are interrelated at the level of the mesosystem; in traditional terminology, distinct tactical initiatives are unified within battle operations.

One immediate benefit of formulating military campaigns in terms of metaphysical ecology is a clarification of the relative roles of tactics, operations, and strategy. Tactics always take place on the level of microsystems. Any particular operation is the coordination of relevant microsystems, so that the mesosystematic level of battle ecology could also be called the infra-operational level (or the intra-operational level). The relation between different operations takes place at the exosystematic level of battle ecology, so this could also be called the inter-operational level. Strategy takes place on the level of the macrosystem. Grand strategy involves the coordination of macrosystems specific to distinct areas of human endeavor, and its proper setting is integral history taken whole.

This diagram focuses on the micro-systems of battle ecology, which micro-systems are the abstract spaces of battlespace.

With this delineation of tactics, operations, and strategy within battle ecology in mind, the concept of battle ecology can be translated into more traditional military terminology as follows:

Tactical Environment (the micro-battlespace): The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Intra-Operational Environment (the meso-battlespace): Relations between micro-battlespace or connections between battlespace contexts.

Inter-Operational Environment (the exo-battlespace): Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Strategic Environment (the macro-battlespace): The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Grand Strategy (the metaphysical battlespace): Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The idea of metaphysical ecology as here first formulated is, in virtue of its comprehensive definition, not specific to an exposition of battlespace ecology. Battle ecology is a special case of metaphysical ecology, just as the bio-ecology of individuals, families, and communities in their social setting (the occasion for Bronfenbrenner’s formulations of ecology in an extended sense) is also a special case of metaphysical ecology. Moreover, as both being special cases of metaphysical ecology, both battle ecology and bio-ecology find their place within the more comprehensive conceptual structure of metaphysical ecology. In other words, in Bronfenbrenner’s words, both are macrosystems that stand in relation to each other within metaphysical ecology.

. . . . .


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7 Responses to “Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated”

  1. Tom Day said

    The 2nd graphic, Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems, is referenced where? Where did you get this image? I remember seeing it in a Human Development text book, can’t remember which one. Can you provide a specific reference of the owner?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Day:

      This image is widely available on the internet, or, at least, it was when I wrote the above. I am sorry to say that I do not know its ultimate source.



  2. Tom Day said

    I know I have used this image before in Develop Course. I believe it was from the Life Span Development text by Laura Berk or the text by Kathleen Berger… not sure which edition. Thanks anyway, I will keep searching.

  3. […] relationship of the two economies can be best understood if we think of them as organisms. Human labor is the energy that feeds and drives the system, much like sunlight is the energy […]

  4. Delighted to have stumbled upon your blog when looking for images on Bronfenbrenner, especially for the multiple peripheries as I required a nudge to see this logical step beyond the thinking of the likes of Seely Brown and Duguid. I’m writing up at 6000 assignment for the Open University Masters in Open and Distance Education – when that’s out the way I’ll come back to this as I am particularly taken by the way you are developing and visualising the way people learn. I’ve reached a stage where I want to develop my own theory of learning – at least I will think it is my own until it has been thoroughly referenced then I’ll see that I am drawing on all my favourites: Vygotsky, Seely Brown, Engestrom … Kolb et a;.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I’m pleased you found something of value in my post.

      If you’re interested in Vygotsky, I hope that you’ve seen my post The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking, in which I adopt a much more developmental approach.

      I have come to realize that laying out the Bronfenbrenner hierarchy of ecological niches of the individual (or, at least, my own personal variant of this that distinguishes between spatial and temporal biosocial ecologies) is an essentially structuralist (or, if you prefer, synchronic) approach, while the developmental perspective constitutes a functionalist (or, again, if you like, a diachronic) approach.

      Ultimately, in order to understand the world, we need both the structural and the functional, the synchronic and diachronic, but lately I have been working more on the developmental side.

      Very Best Wishes,


  5. […] I discovered Urie Bronfenbrenner‘s Ecological Systems Theory while reading a Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon post on Mephysical Ecology. Whenever I run across these ideas, I’m elated to see something complex and integrated into a […]

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