The So-Called Dualism between Nature and Culture

I’ve expressed my disappointment with the majority of theological engagements with ecology and that disappointment has come up again as I’ve been preparing my lectures for Environmental Ethics and Religious Thought. It seems that a lot of theologians focus in on the “split between nature and culture” as the underlying idea driving the ecological crisis. It isn’t just the high-church orthodox ones either. Lynn White’s famous essay that locats the “psychic foundation” for the ecological crisis in the turn from paganism to monotheism is really about what more contemporary thinkers refer to as the split between nature and culture. For White sees in Christianity the enthroning of humanity over and above nature. You then have Northcott responding to this claim with the counter that it was “the wrong kind of Christianity” that created this split. So, rather than dealing head on with the charge (which could be spurious anyway), Northcott moves around it, all the while leaving the underlying thesis regarding nature and culture in place.

This so-called dualism really doesn’t bother me though. I don’t think that positing distinctions in reality lead to the ecological crisis. Nor do I think that a nature/culture split leads automatically to viewing the earth as just a collection of things to be used. I know you get this in Heidegger, the change from a river into the power that a river can provide, but that is part of the river. Even from a phenomenological perspective we don’t find any foundation for the rampant nostalgia present in the theologians’ insincere lamentations for a bygone era. I’m not the biggest fan of Latour’s work, but his theory of nature/culture hybrids does reveal something. Essentially, neither nature-as-that-which-is-but-is-not-human and culture-as-that-which-is-human-and-part-of-nature have priority. There is something univocal at work underlying nature and culture (with these definitions, since they are slippery terms). We can call that Nature’s character as One. But positing a dualism helps us to think the real immanence of Nature-as-One, for it is a formal and abstract separation, rather than a real one.

I think if theologians could get to grips with the truth of immanence they would be less terrified by death, by nature, by genes, and the like. It may help them get past their psychopathic ethics; the kind where you say things like “there is no death outside the church” or you’re living in fear that you don’t know what life is. For the truth of immanence is not naturalism, scientists don’t even believe in naturalism now days, but gnosis. Rather than thinking it is all occluded, all a paradoxical mystery supported by the hand of the Creator who humiliates his creatures, you just know.

7 thoughts on “The So-Called Dualism between Nature and Culture

  1. So, for the sake of clarity, are you for or against the dualism? You seem to be saying that you find it helpful for forming distinctions–maybe something like distinction as “determination,” to see differentiation within the One?

  2. I am largely indifferent to dualism. It can be used to create helpful heuristic separations and I don’t think there has been sufficient evidence for dualism as such being at the heart of various human crises. The split between body and soul is simply a badly formed dualism, as is the one between nature and culture. So the problem comes down to one of dualism as tool rather than getting rid of dualism.

  3. Alongside ‘Descartes as villain,’ ‘more dwelling is good’ the ‘split between nature and culture’ belongs to the trinity of green memes that just won’t die. This is why I support your efforts to discuss the city in an ecological context. Since more than half of the human population now lives in a city it is important that we don’t regress and hold out for the impossible dream of reversing that process (like climate change there has been a certain amount of irreversible damage that must be dealt with).

    I think the ‘dualism led to the ecological crisis’ theme is a neat one for setting people on the track of thinking about the problem (undergrads in particular), but as analyses go it is woefully inadequate and masks, I think, something of the agency involved – the conceptual distinction made us do it!

    ‘I know you get this in Heidegger, the change from a river into the power that a river can provide, but that is part of the river.’

    I actually think that for Heidegger it really is no longer a part of the river – no longer a part of the Rhine as such, but a section of what was *once* the Rhine now made into a power station and I think that is where the nostalgia creeps in. Heidegger was also obsessed with this notion of what cannot be reversed which is why I think his thinking appealed to so many early ecological thinkers such as Naess.

    Not sure about the theological dimensions, but I think what unites the Heideggerian, the theologian and the ecologist here is the memory of what once was and cannot be retrieved. I mean toward the end of Heidegger’s thinking we are reduced to waiting for something that is not actually going to come (which is more or less where the reasonable religious person is I think?) and this is also true of the green dream: what you want once existed but is gone forever and yet you still desire it. I’m sure Guattari must discuss this a little.

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