Unpacking Spinoza: Sustainability Education Outside the Cartesian Box
Abstract: By its nature and scope, the concept of sustainability is a challenge to traditional education. Where most academic institutions still value and promote narrowly conceived fields of expertise, sustainability requires a comprehensive, wide-angle approach to problem definitions as
well as solutions. This challenge highlights the need for a bold reassessment of a number of epistemic assumptions; one of them being the validity of the Baconian-Cartesian reductionism at the core of the scientific method. This paper presents a novel, non-reductionist approach to understanding and teaching sustainability grounded in an analogy from the systems philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). This approach is an alternative that transcends the traditional dichotomy between reductionism and holism in their various forms. I discuss how Spinoza’s approach to parts and wholes can be applied to a transdisciplinary, systems-based sustainability education addressing systems of varying size and complexity. A multitude of systems theories and methodologies have failed in the role as widely accepted and used meta-languages that effectively transcend disciplinary confines. As applied in this paper, Spinoza’s philosophy can effectively be used as such a discipline-transcending facilitator of understanding. To my knowledge, Spinoza’s fundamental contributions to the philosophy of systems and transdisciplinarity presented in this paper have not been recognized in the literature, including the research on Soft Systems Methodology and other “constructivist” systems approaches.