“Gone is the teleological and organic in biological explanation”
Val Plumwood (1939 – 2008) was a philosopher who authored or co-authored four books and over 100 papers on logic, metaphysics, the environment, and ecofeminism.
Her worldview was profoundly holistic and her rejection of the mechanistic contemporary philosophy founded by Descartes was in the best organic radical tradition.
In her 1993 book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature she explained the close link between the dualism of mind and nature and the dualism of mind and body: “All these features of Cartesianism make for a great and unbridgeable division between the sphere of nature and the sphere of the mental, identified on the general level with the human and on the individual level with the self.
“Consciousness now divides the universe completely in a total cleavage between the thinking being and mindless nature, and between the thinking substance and ‘its’ body, which becomes the division between consciousness and clockwork.
“Gone is the teleological and organic in biological explanation. Mind is defining of and confined to human knowers, and nature is merely alien”. (1)
Plumwood said the way that Western culture had treated the human/nature relation as a dualism, constructing human identity as somehow being outside nature, explained many of the problematic features of the West’s treatment of nature which underlay the modern environmental crisis.
She wrote: “In this landscape, nature must be seen as a political rather than a descriptive category, a sphere formed from the multiple exclusions of the protagonist-superhero of the western psyche, reason, whose adventures and encounters form the stuff of western intellectual history.
“The concept of reason provides the unifying and defining contrast for the concept of nature, much as the concept of husband does for that of wife, as master for slave.
“Reason in the western tradition has been constructed as the privileged domain of the master, who has conceived nature as a wife or subordinate other encompassing and representing the sphere of materiality, subsistence and the feminine which the master has split off and constructed as beneath him”. (2)
As part of this critique, Plumwood specifically described social ecologist Murray Bookchin as being “unable and unwilling to accommodate a thoroughgoing critique of human domination of nature”. (3)
She said his “ecological rationalism” championed an Enlightenment-sourced rejection of spirituality and held up “reason” as the chief justification of human superiority over nature.
It failed to come to terms with “the re-evaluation of any of the complex of western-centred rationalist concepts which inferiorise the sphere of nature and non-western culture—rationality, progress, ‘primitivism’, development and civilisation”, she said.
“It fails to confront the chief myth of progress and the other ideologies which surround colonialism, namely the confrontation with an inferior past, an inferior non-western other and the associated notion of indigenous cultures as ‘backward’, earlier stages of our own exemplary civilisation”. (4)
Plumwood insisted on the importance of celebrating human beings’ physical reality within nature, in defiance of a contemporary blind spot which even affected environmentalists like Bookchin.
She said that on the surface it might seem puzzling that contemporary thinking rejected the basic environmental wisdom that humans were animals and had the same dependence on a healthy biosphere as other forms of life.
“But the reason why this message of continuity and dependency is so revolutionary in the context of the modern world is that the dominant strands of western culture have for so long denied it, and have given us a model of human identity as only minimally and accidentally connected to the earth.
“We must find ways to rework our concepts and practices of human virtue and identity as they have been conceived, since at least the time of the Greeks, as exclusive of and discontinuous with the devalued orders of the feminine, of subsistence, of materiality and of non-human nature”. (5)
Video links: Jackie French on Val Plumwood (8 mins), ‘Part of the feast’: The life and work of Val Plumwood (1hr 26 mins)
1. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 116.
2. Plumwood, p. 3.
3. Plumwood, p. 14.
4. Plumwood, p. 16.
5. Plumwood, p. 6.