The Hope of Creation – A Conversation with Timothy Ingold

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

There is now no place on earth unmarked by the human being: this is what it means to live in the age of the Anthropocene. In such an age, when the impact of humanity’s decisions is greater than ever, answering fundamental questions of creation, meaning, and use – questions of how to live responsibly and justly in the world – is more important than ever. To engage such questions, Timothy Ingold (Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen) joined Norman Wirzba for the first in our series.

Ingold’s work is far-reaching—it encompasses archeology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, environmental technologies, evolutionary theory, and other fields. In similar fashion, Ingold’s presentation on January 21 ranged from ancient philosophies to modern realities, from minute particularities like cooking and painting to sweeping fundamentals like knowing and living. It all gestured toward the same question: how does a person rightly live in the world?

Ingold began to answer this with a provocative claim: We need the promise of creation in order to keep living. He argued that creation, “holds the promise of a world to come, of the continuity of life, and the possibility of renewal.” To explain, he traced the origins of the word, beginning with the ancients in Lucretius, moving into its biblical use with Jerome, and tracing it to the theologies of Aquinas and William of Ockham, with the aim of distinguishing creation from its more modern corollary, creativity. On the side of creation, Ingold places newness, invention, new birth, and the forward-looking unfolding of the life process. On the side of creativity, he puts the notion of intelligent design, novelty, fabrication, and the backward-looking rearrangement of established ideas and concepts. Creation links the creator and the created; creativity separates them.

Ingold’s distinction plays out in the realm of art. Renaissance painters bestowed on themselves God-like powers to extract and replicate beauty, reducing the work of “creating” to that of intelligence or skill. By contrast, he cites the painter Paul Klee who, centuries later, spoke of art as “genesis…never experienced purely as a result.” For Ingold, great harm was done to the word creation when it was confused with the skilled intelligence of creativity. To lose creation in favor of creativity is to lose hope that something new can arise in the world. The world needs such newness.

Over the course of the conversation between Wirzba and Ingold, it became increasingly apparent that this notion of creation hinges on a fundamentally different way of understanding the world than is common in modern discourse. Ingold describes the world as a meshwork, a term set against philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour, who proposed a description of the world as a network. Rather than seeing people as actors, as fixed points on a line, Ingold suggests that people are in fact the lines themselves, in constant movement, intersection, and divergence. “If [people] are points, they are stuck in one place; there is no movement to them…So what I wanted to do was try and find a way in which we could bring the network back to life so that actually the lines are themselves where the life is,” noted Ingold. “That really is a rather critical distinction because it allows us to speak of life processes as ways of going along together.” This idea radically changes what it means to be a person in the world. As an ever-moving line, a person is always in the process of being created by other people (lines), animals, tools, books, food, air, etc. Ingold’s understanding infuses the entire world with meaning, ensuring that the process of creation, of new life entering the world, is always underway.

Such a radical notion of the world sparked questions from the audience about what it means to “create knowledge” in such a meshwork, a particularly relevant question for the academy today. Ingold replied that once again it is about the process rather than the product: “Knowing is a process… Knowing always goes beyond knowledge and thinking always goes beyond thought.” Deciding to write a book or publish an article is not producing knowledge; instead, it is stopping at a point on the line of the process of knowledge, before continuing along.

There are, however, many obstacles to a life attentive to the generative capabilities of creation. Both Wirzba and Ingold identified the consumerist and capitalist systems that inhibit creation, making us feel alien to the world, consenting to buy it rather than pay attention to it. For Ingold, these systems are fundamentally incompatible with a lively relationship to the world. He said, “The only way we can get on with the process of repair which is needed is through actually a repudiation of the basic logic of capitalist consumerist society.” He added that the very structure of cities must change, that architecture and agriculture must intersect, and urban planning must build “a place where people live…and crops are grown.” Educational institutions must divorce themselves from the capitalistic production of knowledge; the old and the young must become reacquainted with one another. In short, the work of repair requires much to change.

In the opening webinar, Ingold suggested a way of being in the world that is almost antithetical to the way of the modern world. And yet, he did so in a way that struck as profoundly hopeful, seeing the threats of consumerism and capitalism as blips in the long timeline of the world. His fundamental belief in the aliveness of the world and the ever-becoming nature of humanity means that we have reason to believe that a society built on production is not a terminal one.

“Only by restoring faith and hope in the perpetuity of beginning in creation can we open up a real future to coming generations,” Ingold concluded. New life is springing up, even in the age of the Anthropocene. May we find hope in it.

Join us on January 28, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by political theorist Alyssa Battistoni. To register for this webinar, as well as to learn more about the series, click here.