What are the implications of nature as a human invention?

So far we’ve explored what we mean by nature and how we arrived at this way of thinking, and we’ve briefly considered some of the reasons why it is simplistic and inaccurate to understand humanity as existing outside, or separate from, a nonhuman nature.

In the remainder of this week we will look at some of the implications, or consequences, of this dualistic understanding of the world. By doing so we hope to convince you that in addition to being inaccurate, a dualistic understanding of the world leads to a range of very worrying ethical and political outcomes.

However, before we move on to look at four of the key implications of a nature/culture dualism, we need to say a little more about dualisms themselves.

A foray into dualisms

The work of Australian philosopher Val Plumwood is absolutely central here. Plumwood’s account is complex and detailed so we won’t be able to take it up in full. There are a few key points though that are central.

Firstly, Plumwood pointed out that it is not just nature and culture that are understood dualistically in western culture. Instead, she argued that a set of “interrelated and mutually reinforcing dualisms … forms a fault-line which runs through its [western culture’s] entire conceptual system.” [1]

Some of the key dualisms that she identified are:

  • culture / nature
  • reason / nature
  • male / female
  • mind / body
  • master / slave
  • reason / matter
  • human / nature
  • civilised / primitive
  • human / animal

These dualistic categories are not just listed here in any old way. All of those listed on the left have historically been understood to exist in a dominant or superior position to those on the right.

Plumwood argued that “linking postulates” play a vital role here: “Linking postulates are assumptions normally made or implicit in the cultural background which create equivalences or mapping between the pairs” [2]. In this way, humans are more readily associated with culture; males are more readily associated with rationality; the master is seen as being more civilised than the slave.

Plumwood offers the following short passage from Aristotle’s Politics as a key example of an influential philosopher who used supposed shared qualities or characteristics between those things on the left of this list, and between those on the right, to subtly create connections between them in a way that “justifies” various forms of domination.

“It is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good for animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind. Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as is the case of those whose business it is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another’s and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have such a principle, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend such a principle; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life…. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.” [3]

What we see here are linked, mutually reinforcing, dualistic categories in the service of various forms of domination, from slavery to misogyny.

These dualisms are not just contrasts, or even opposites (like day and night) — they are radically opposed concepts in a strict hierarchy. Furthermore, as we see in this example from Aristotle, dualisms “naturalise” this hierarchy, that is, they make it appear to be “just the way things are” (part of their essence or structure — which is the other main meaning of nature that we discussed earlier). The slave doesn’t just happen to be a slave, say because she was born into a particular family; she is a slave because she lacks the rationality and civilised bearing of the master — in some fundamental sense she ought to be a slave.

Plumwood sums up these key features of dualisms in the following quote:

“Dualism is a relation of separation and domination inscribed and naturalised in culture and characterised by radical exclusion, distancing and opposition between orders constructed as systematically higher and lower, as inferior and superior, as ruler and ruled, which treats the division as part of the natures of beings construed not merely as different but as belonging to radically different orders or kinds, and hence as not open to change.” [4]

Understanding dualisms in this more detailed way we are better able to appreciate the complex implications of nature as a conceptual category and its dualistic relationship to the category culture. It should also be clear why scholars interested in issues of domination related to gender, sexuality and race have also taken a strong interest in the nature/culture dualism; this way of characterising the world has implications well beyond what we ordinarily think of as “environmental” issues.

References

  1. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London & New York: Routledge, 1993): 42.
  2. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 45.
  3. Aristotle, “Book I,” trans. Benjamin Jowett, in Politics, (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008): 33-34.
  4. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, 47-8.

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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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