Last week my family and I had a lovely little break and enjoyed some quality time together. Vacation. What a treat! Thanks for your patience as this site idled.
I want to wade back into blogging by highlighting the work of some brilliant philosophers. Guess what, they’re women! Academic philosophy is overwhelmingly homogeneous in terms of race and gender. So in honor of women’s history month, I begin a series of posts on some of the women whose work has been the most influential in my own thinking. First up, Val Plumwood!
Plumwood was an Australian ecological feminist philosopher whose work engages ethics, political philosophy, logic, and environmental philosophy. There are two fundamental claims that ecofeminisms share: (1) that there are significant connections between gender oppression and the systemic destruction of nature, and (2) that those committed to addressing one of these injustices ought be aware of these connections and committed to addressing the other as well. Different scholars and activists have theorized differently the nature of these connections and what is required to redress the oppression and destruction. But, for me, Plumwood’s work is the preeminent example of a philosophical critique of the social construction of gender and nature, the value hierarchical logic of those constructions, and the material and conceptual upshots.
My thinking life was forever changed when my undergraduate advisor, Jon Jensen, lent me his copy of Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993). I’m sure that many of my readers have “before and after” books in their lives. Well, this is one of mine. After reading Plumwood’s critical ecological feminist analysis, I began seeing it everywhere in the world. It also became the theoretical lens that I would apply in my own philosophical analyses moving forward in my academic career.
We’re going to get a little technical for a couple of paragraphs, here. If you’re not in the mood but are interested in a remarkably compelling essay of narrative philosophy, one that involves a crocodile attack, skip the indented portions and jump down to my recommendation at the end!
Plumwood argues that marginalization and exploitation on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and species are conceptually grounded in a common logic of exclusion and hierarchical valuation. This logic takes the form of a centric relational structure that is shared by sexism, racism, and colonialism. Each case sets up one term (Masculine, White, European, for example) as the normative center and defines marginal others as secondary, derivative, or deficient in relation to it. (Think about how “primitive” peoples are described in colonial-era travel narratives.) This centrist conceptual structure is built on a foundation of value dualism. As distinct from a mere difference, dualism creates a radical separation– a difference in kind– between the group identified as the privileged center and the groups that are consequently marginalized. It is hegemonic because our cultural narratives and material practices work together to naturalize the value-laden differences. The following list of “opposites” will probably feel familiar and “natural” to many of us: Reason/Nature, Male/Female, Human/Animal, Mind/Body, Public/Private, Self/Other. Plumwood provides a notably rigorous analysis of these dualized conceptual pairs, arguing that a gendered Reason/Nature dualism plays the key role in they way they mutually reinforce one another, building and maintaining the centric picture described above.
Plumwood’s critical work has shown that an elevation of the value of human reason has dominated western philosophy since the time of Plato, characterizing the fundamental assumptions of western science and capitalist economics as well. “Rationalism” takes conscious reason to be definitive of the human and tends to deny nature mind-like qualities, while simultaneously assuming that reason is the source of moral value. In elevating reason, the mental is detached from the bodily, and human dependence on the material world is backgrounded or denied. Reason is a cognitive expression of human freedom that separates humanity from the natural realm of necessity or contingency. Humanity is conferred with dignity by virtue of that freedom and thus morally superior to the realm of nature. The rational mind seeks knowledge of natural objects so as to better understand how to control nature in service of its own ends. This mind is egoistic, seeking the maximization of satisfaction and recognizing social dependence only in terms of its necessity for securing one’s desires. Plumwood’s narrative maps the supremacy of reason onto human supremacy via the identification of humanity with active, individualized mind and reason, and of non-humans with passive, interchangeable bodies. The upshot, according to Plumwood, is that rationalism fails both to situate human beings ecologically and nonhuman beings ethically. The current ecological crises are the devastating effects of these twin failures, and evidence that while hyper-separation from nature gave rationalism its hegemonic power, it is also a tragic flaw. By denying dependence on nature, the very conditions that allowed for its mastery will be the source of its own destruction.
As an undergrad and masters student my intellectual energy was focused on depth of understanding of Plumwood’s critical arguments. As a doctoral student I became more focused and interested in her positive vision of an alternative ethics that is both feminist and ecological, guided by a radical egalitarianism. As an alternative to the egoist self of traditional rationalism, Plumwood advocates an ecological self realized through relationships of mutuality with human and nonhuman others. As an alternative to the colonizing view of the non-rational as an undifferentiated resource, Plumwood prescribes the adoption of the “intentional recognition stance” which recognizes the nonhuman other as agentic, as a source of striving, and as potentially communicative. This “new” understanding of human self, and of self’s connection to complex human and nonhuman others, provides the ground for “ecological rationality.” My dissertation work was a modest attempt at expanding on a couple of elements of her vision. I attempted a fuller articulation of care, respect, and solidarity as ecological feminist modes of moral response.
Val Plumwood died in 2008, a massive loss for philosophical and environmentalist communities. Here she is, pictured with one of the many wombats that she loved:
For anyone interested in reading some of Val’s work, I would recommend the essay that I typically assigned to my undergraduate students: “Being Prey.” In it Plumwood recounts a traumatic encounter with a crocodile while she was canoeing in the remote Kakadu wetlands. Not only is it a gripping tale of survival, it is a philosophically enlightening articulation of the shift in perspective that comes with the realization that you are edible. It is also a careful analysis of the gendered elements of the human-nature relationship that are often difficult to see. I cannot recommend this essay enough!