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David Abram

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David Abram

David Abram

David Abram (born June 24, 1957) is an American philosopher, cultural ecologist, and performance artist, best known for his work bridging the philosophical tradition of phenomenology with environmental and ecological issues.[1][2] He is the author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology[3] (2010) and The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (1996), for which he received, among other prizes, the international Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. Abram is founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE); his essays on the cultural causes and consequences of ecological disarray have appeared often in such journals as Orion, Environmental Ethics, Parabola, Tikkun, and The Ecologist, as well as numerous anthologies.

In the mid 1990s, Abram coined the phrase "the more-than-human world" as a way of referring to earthly nature; the term was soon adopted by other scholars, theorists, and activists, and has become a key phrase within the lingua franca of the broad ecological movement.


Born In the suburbs of New York City, Abram began practicing sleight-of-hand magic during his high school years in Baldwin, Long Island; it was this craft that sparked his ongoing fascination with perception. In 1976, he began working as "house magician" at Alice's Restaurant in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and soon was performing at clubs throughout New England while studying at Wesleyan University. After his second year of college, Abram took a year off to travel as an itinerant street magician through Europe and the Middle East; toward the end of that journey, in London, he began exploring the application of sleight-of-hand magic to psychotherapy under the guidance of R. D. Laing. After graduating summa cum laude from Wesleyan in 1980, Abram traveled throughout Southeast Asia as an itinerant magician, living and studying with traditional, indigenous magic practitioners (or medicine persons) in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Nepal. Upon returning to North America he continued performing while devoting himself to the study of natural history and ethno-ecology, visiting and learning from native communities in the southwest desert and the Pacific northwest. A much-reprinted essay written while studying biology at the Yale School of Forestry in 1984 — entitled "The Perceptual Implications of Gaia" — brought Abram into association with the scientists formulating the Gaia Hypothesis, and he was soon lecturing in tandem with biologist Lynn Margulis and geochemist James Lovelock in Britain and the United States. In the late 1980s, Abram turned his attention to exploring and articulating the decisive influence of language upon the human senses and upon our sensory experience of the land around us. Abram received a doctorate for this work from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in 1993.[4]


Abram's writing is informed by his work with indigenous peoples, as well as by the American nature-writing tradition that stems from Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. His philosophical work is informed by the European tradition of phenomenology — in particular, by the work of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Abram's evolving work has also been influenced by his friendships with the archetypal psychologist James Hillman and with the radical social critic, Ivan Illich — as well as by his esteem for the American poet Gary Snyder and the agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry. In 1988, while pursuing his doctorate, Abram was invited by the maverick ecologist Paul Shepard to temporarily fill Shepard's teaching position (while Shepard pursued a year's research overseas), as Visiting Professor of Ecology and Natural Philosophy at the Claremont Colleges in California. Since that time, Abram has offered seminars at universities around the world, while nonetheless maintaining his independence from the institutional world of academia. His ideas have often been debated (sometimes heatedly) within the pages of Environmental Ethics and the Journal of Environmental Philosophy, an academic journal dedicated to matters of environmental philosophy.[5]

Writing in the mid-nineteen nineties, finding himself frustrated by the problematic terminology of environmentalism (tired of the conceptual gulf between humankind and the rest of nature tacitly implied by the use of conventional terms like "environment" and even by the word "nature" itself, which is so often contrasted with "culture" as though there were a neat divide between the two), Abram coined the phrase "the more-than-human world" in order to signify the broad commonwealth of earthly life, a realm that manifestly includes humankind and its culture, but which necessarily exceeds human culture. The phrase was intended, first and foremost, to indicate that the space of human culture was a subset within a larger set — that the human world was necessarily sustained, surrounded, and permeated by the more-than-human world — yet by the phrase Abram also meant to encourage a new humility on the part of humankind (since the "more" could be taken not just in a quantitative but also in a qualitative sense). Upon introducing the phrase as a central term in his 1996 book (subtitled Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World) the phrase was gradually adopted by many other theorists and activists, soon becoming an inescapable term within the broad ecological movement.[6] In recent writings, Abram sometimes refers to the more-than-human world as the "breathing commonwealth," or the "commonwealth of breath." [7]

In 2001, the New England Aquarium and the Orion Society sponsored a large public debate between Abram and distinguished biologist E. O. Wilson, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, on science and ethics. (An essay by Abram that grew out of that debate, entitled "Earth in Eclipse," has been published in several versions). In the summer of 2005, Abram delivered a keynote address for the United Nations “World Environment Week” in San Francisco, to 70 mayors from the largest cities around the world. Abram founded the Alliance for Wild Ethics with several colleagues in 2006. He was profiled in the 2007 book, Visionaries: The 20th Century’s 100 Most Inspirational Leaders[8] and was named by the Utne Reader as one of a hundred visionaries currently transforming the world,[9] In 2014 Abram held the international Arne Naess Chair of Global Justice and Ecology at the University of Oslo, in Norway. The father of two small children, Abram lives in the foothills of the southern Rockies.


See also


  1. ^ "Fellowships in Environmental Journalism". Middlebury College. 
  2. ^ "IONS Directory Profile". Institute of Noetic Sciences. 
  3. ^ "Becoming Animal by David Abram". Random House. Retrieved 2010-11-13. 
  4. ^ "Animals And Environment Deserve More Respect". Daily Gazette. Jan 28, 1996. 
  5. ^ See, for example, Ted Toadvine, "Limits of the Flesh: The Role of Reflection in David Abram's Ecophenomenology" and David Abram, "Between the Body and the Breathing Earth: A Reply to Ted Toadvine" in Environmental Ethics, summer 2005 issue. See also Eleanor D. Helms, "Language and Responsibility" in the Spring 2008 issue of Environmental Philosophy. See also Meg Holden, "Phenomenology versus Pragmatism: Seeking a Restoration Environmental Ethic." Spring 2001 issue (and Abram's reply in the Fall 2001 issue).
  6. ^ See, for example, its use within various papers in the (current) issue of Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, 2014, or the centrality of the phrase for recent textbooks such as "Ecological Ethics: An Introduction" by Patrick Curry (Polity, 2011) or "Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment," by Kenneth Worthy (Prometheus Books, 2013), and innumerable other papers and books.
  7. ^ See Abram's afterword for Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (Indiana University Press, 2014)
  8. ^ Chelsea Green Press, 2007.
  9. ^ See "100 Visionaries," Utne Reader, Jan/Feb 1995; and "The Loose Canon: 150 Great Works to Set Your Imagination On Fire," Utne Reader, May/June 1998.
  10. ^ "PEN American Center's 2011 award winners".  
  11. ^  

External links

  • Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE) website
  • The Spell of the SensuousThe Ecology of Magic: chapter excerpt from
  • Speaking with Animal TonguesThe Acoustic Ecology Institute:
  • Interview with David Abram on the spell of literacy
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