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The Western Division Between Nature and Culture

This article describes the dualistic nature of Western thought and the division between nature and culture.
© UNSW Australia 2016
The key to understanding how “nature” (as nonhuman) functions in the modern world is appreciating that it is a strongly dualistic term.
At the simplest level, a dualism is the conceptual division of something into two distinct parts. In Western thought, nature has tended to be understood as dualistically opposed to culture or humanity. Nature is those parts or places that are (relatively) unaffected by people.
This way of dividing up the world positions humans as fundamentally outside nature. As William Cronon notes, from this perspective: “The place where we are is the place where nature is not.” [1]
For those of us raised and educated within this kind of framework it seems entirely obvious, natural even. How else could we understand things?
It turns out, however, that many other cultures do not, and have not, divided the world up in this way. The nature/culture dualism is the product of the very particular cultural history of the West.[2][3][4] It is not “true” in any meaningful sense, it is just one way of understanding things — and potentially a very problematic one. The ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood has called the nature/culture dualism “the foundational delusion of the West” and has argued that it is a “dangerous doctrine, strongly implicated in the environmental crisis.”[5]
Plumwood also 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.” [6]
Some of the key dualisms 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. Furthermore, dualisms “naturalise” this hierarchy — that is, they make it appear to be “just the way things are” (part of their essence or structure). 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.
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.

How did we get here?

If the nature/culture dualism is a product of a peculiarly Western or European cultural history, then how did we happen to get here? How did the West end up with this particular way of dividing up the world?
The history of ideas is a complex field. Even once we appreciate that our understanding of “nature” is just that, a particular understanding, not reality itself, teasing out how we arrived here is difficult. In all likelihood there is no single, simple, root cause.
Plumwood calls the nature-culture dualism
the love-child of the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality mated with the much younger circumstance of human experience of commodification in the global city.[7]
Plumwood’s reference to the city points to forms of human life that are increasingly alienated from (many) nonhumans. While we might still interact with urban wildlife and small “green spaces,” fewer and fewer of us spend serious time, or earn a living, interacting with those parts of the world we call “nature.” From inside the city — in contrast to life as a gatherer/hunter, on a farm or in a small town — it becomes much easier to see nature as something that exists “out there,” separate from human life. When children don’t know that milk comes from cows and think that bears make honey, this alienation seems particularly acute.
But the first part of Plumwood’s quote points to a deeper history of dualistic thinking: “the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality.” What is this?
There are probably many aspects to this narrative in the West, many strands that have come together. The philosopher J. Baird Callicott sums up the key ones in the following quote:
In the first book of the Bible, alone among all the other creatures, God makes man in His own image, giving him dominion over and charging him to subdue the earth and all its denizens. In ancient Greek philosophy, man is set apart from nature because he alone among the animals is supposed to be rational. In the late medieval and early modern periods, thinkers as different from one another as Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes synthesized these two strands of thought, the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman. Thus the man/nature dualism in each augmented the other. And Descartes’ contemporary, Francis Bacon, set the modern agenda for the scientific conquest of nature by man. If we can discover the working principles — the divinely ordained laws — of nature, he presciently pointed out, we can bend it to our will.[8]
And so this, in a nutshell, is what we tend to mean by the term “nature,” and how it is that we have arrived at this understanding. But is this an accurate or helpful way to understand and divide up the world?
– Thom van Dooren


  1. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).
  2. Philippe Descola, In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia, trans. Nora Scott (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  3. Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London & New York: Routledge, 2000).
  4. Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, eds., Nature, Culture and Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  5. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London & New York: Routledge, 1993).
  6. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London & New York: Routledge, 1993): 42.
  7. Val Plumwood, “Nature as Agency and the Prospects for a Progressive Naturalism,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 12, no. 4 (2001): 26.
  8. John Baird Callicott, “La Nature est morte, vive la nature!,” The Hastings Center Report 22, no. 5 (1992).
© UNSW Australia 2016
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