by Adam RobbertOne of the most important insights we gain from ecology is the break down of structure and content. The most evident example of this is the need to re-think the distinction between an organism and its environment.
An “environment” from the ecological view is not a container that exists somewhere “out there” surrounding an organism. Rather, an environment is itself one of the entites produced by the activity of other entities — both living and nonliving — and is only composed of other kinds of entities (e.g., other species, particular geological features, or other chemical agents). We see this most clearly articulated in what is called Niche Construction Theory, which posits that organisms in part modify their own selection pressures by tampering with the ecological dynamics in which they participate. In other words it’s not strictly the case that organisms are *in* the environment; the structure (the environment) and the content (the organism) exist as blurry zones of interactions between specific entities. “Environment” from this perspective is a kind of pseudo-concept that hides the complex relations between what is called structure and what is called content.
We also see something similar at play in ecological approaches to cognition. Among these the work of Evan Thompson and John Protevi are noteworthy. For Thompson, a thorough going account of cognition includes three elements: (1) The content being experienced, (2) The sense of what it’s like to experience that particular content, and (3) An account of the structures by which we experience both content and the sense of what its like to experience content in this particular way. One interpretation of this is that structure is a kind of content operating on a different level of cognition. For Protevi a similar approach to cognition is enacted in a social register via what he calls “political affect.” A key insight of political affect is that the structures that produce the possibility for certain kinds of experience are not *given* structures universally applicable to something we might call “The Human” or “The Subject.” Rather, different structures of cognition are produced through different cultural and material practices, or what Protevi calls “developmental context.” An implication of following Protevi’s insights to their conclusion is that multiple kinds of subjects — or multiple kinds of cognitive structures that make possible certain kinds of content within consciousness — are possible. Again, for both Thompson and Protevi we see a break down between structure (what philosophers sometimes call a priori conditions for the possibility of experience) and content (the actual experiences made possible).
Ecology simply is this break down.