How has the discourse about dualism within feminist ecology changed?

Dualism and its development within critical feminist discourse and eco-philosophy

Term Paper, 2020

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Humans versus nature

2. History of dualism
2.1 The tradition ofhierarchical dualism
2.2 Plumwoods masteridentityandthe colonised“other”
2.3 Features of the human/nature dualism

3. Ecofeminists reactions on the human/nature discourse
3.1 Feminism of uncritical equality
3.2 Feminism of uncritical reversal

4. Subverting dualism
4.1 Relationality as new concept
4.2 Re/productivity
4.3 Haraway's naturecultures

5. Humans with nature?

6. Bibliography

1 Introduction

Ecofeminist philosophy conceived the affinity of women and nature to be rooted in their concept of motherhood. Metaphorically the earth is often perceived in terms of mother earth, as the goddess Gaia in greek mythology (Valera, 2017, p.10). In traditional resources this connection was treated as a major disadvantage for women who were depicted as objects, serving the needs of the species, incapable of taking part in science or being animal-like creates that are bound to their bodies and emotions. Hence this relation has conduced in the past as well as currently to their oppression (Plumwood, 1993, p. 19).

Because this relation between women and nature still constitutes the dynamic behind their treatment it is necessary part of contemporary feminist ecological discourse.

What nature and women have in common is that their contribution is devalued, inferiorized and denied. Ecofeminists, who first exposed the problematic relation between women and nature as an instrument of domination, emphasized that since the connection is revealed it now must be dissolved. From the origin of ecofeminism - a term that was first introduced by the French writer Frangoise d'Eaubonne in her book “Le Féminisme ou la Mort” (1974) - came the understanding that the many systems of oppression are mutually endorsing and that there are similarities between forms ofhuman oppression such as racism, classism, sexism and the subjugation and exploitation of nature. Therefore liberation of nature and women and the subversion of dualisms specifically can only be achieved by recognizing the interconnectedness in the subjugation of women, other humans and non-human nature (Gaard 1997, 114; Valera, 2017).

The subjection, exploitation and degradation of nature and its resources, as well as women's work and bodies, is the process and result of deeply inscribed oppositional dualisms in western culture. This concept of dualism stems from Greek philosophy where nature - which includes emotions, the body, the primitive, matter, physicality and the non-human world - has been constructed in opposition to reason which excludes everything that nature embodies.

The assimilation between women and nature which has first been merely a symbolic one became a target for deconstruction and political intervention of ecofeminists with the intention to dismantle the categories of identity that solidified the dominant treatment of women.

From the rise of ecofeminist thoughts in the 1970s the conflict of dualism has been dealt with differently from second-wave feminists who wanted to invert this hierarchical system and reclaim their power by either celebrating their connection with nature and what has been devalued from western culture or by striving for equal integration in the sphere of culture and what has been considered human activities.

Critical ecological feminism is the first feminism that takes an anti-essentialist approach, thereby questioning the dualistic conception of human identity and the power relations by which it is pervaded.

In the 90s, critical ecological feminists started the discourse about relationality as a way of keeping the identity of each distinctive order but constructing it not in opposition but in relation with each other.

How has the discourse about dualism within feminist ecology changed from the beginning of the first ecofeminist movement?

How can the perception of dualism be transformed from an exclusive hierarchical one to one that recognizes the mutual dependency and relationality of the distinctive orders?

The intent of this paper is to give a brief insight in the history of dualism and its development within critical feminist discourse and eco-philosophy while it focuses on gender relations, demarcating from the impacts on nature which would require further examination.

The first part of my research paper delineates the history of contrasting traditional dualisms like the reason/nature dualism, unfolds the effects and features of an exclusive system like this and explains what concept of the human is undermining by retracing Plumwoods main arguments in her book “Mastery ofNature” from 1993.

Furthermore I describe how the exclusive human/nature dualism has been dealt with in the past from a cultural and liberal ecofeminist perspective during second-wave feminism.

After the examination of how humans were constructed historically against nature, the second part is dedicated to the construction of a non-hierarchical dualism through a new concept of relationality that was introduced as critique of essentialist from critical ecological feminist positions like Mathews. Subsequently the relational construction of re/productivity and Donna Haraway's phrase naturecultures will be exemplified to display the potential of a relational concept for the symbolic and material transformation of exclusive dualisms.

2 History of dualism

2.1 The tradition of dualism

Both environmental philosophers and feminist theorists recognized the relations between humans and nature in western culture being constructed in dualistic terms.

According to Plumwood (1993) “dualism is the process by which contrasting concepts are formed by domination/ subordination and are constructed as oppositional and exclusive “ (p.30).

These concepts are assumed to be interrelated in a huge network of other contrasting concepts which are mutually reinforcing.

The most common dualistic pairs that appear in western knowledge resources are:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Plumwood, 1993, p.43)

The left hand side on the list of dualisms shows qualities traditionally associated with men and the human, the right hand side depicts qualities traditionally excluded from male ideals and associated with women. Hence the more highly valued order (male) is construed as inherently different and oppositional from the lower inferiorized order (female).

Dualism originates from denied dependency on a subordinated other creating a logical structure in which the domination over the other order seems to proceed as direct consequence of the associated attributions. This has the effect to naturalize subordination by justifying the division as part of the natures of beings. Even if the structure of binarism shapes the oppression of the devalued identity, they are not explicit in western culture because they have been naturalized and institutionalized over a long period of time (Plumwood, 1993, pp. 41- 43).

Besides, the western model of humanity relies on appearing as a natural and unchangeable order, otherwise the hierarchical order of identity and ensuing oppression for the needs of the superior identity would be unmasked and endangered.

The development of dualism can be traced back to ancient philosophy and is part of a historical process. Various philosophers dealt with different dualistic pairs. To name some, Platon dealt with the division of reason and nature, Descartes focused on the mind/body dualism and Marx employed the separation of culture/nature, freedom/ necessity and production/reproduction (Plumwood, 1993, p. 45).

One of the main earliest dualist pairs is the one of reason and nature which has played a major role in the exclusion of women from academia in the 20th century which liberation later on became the main target for the first wave of feminism.

As the philosopher Hegel wrote “Women are certainly capable of learning, but they are not made for the higher forms of science, such as philosophy and certain types of creative activity; these require a universal ingredient.” (Plumwood, 1993, p.19).

This quotation implies reason being the main distinctive quality that separates men and women. The missing universal ingredient Hegel is talking about seems to be women's supposed lack of reason. For traditional philosophy, ideas about reason were directly intertwined with ideals about gender. Whereas dualistic structure is based on extreme separation of one concept over the other which does not allow overlapping qualities, women are constructed as opposite and inferior than men and were denied to inhabit reason simultaneously.

Plato introduced the dichotomy reason/nature for the purpose of opposing everything associated with menials (women, enslaved, animals) to the privileged male class which was signified by the distinctive quality of reason (Mathews, 2017,p.63).

Taking the reason/nature dualism as the origin point of exclusion, all qualities on the side considered as superior, can be represented as forms of reason and all qualities assigned to the underside as forms of nature. Therefore all human orders treated as nature are affected by the exclusions and denials of dependency from the higher valued order.

The reason why such ancient concepts are still undermining western culture is that ancient dualisms, over the time, cleared their way for the development of new dualisms which are derivations of older forms. Variants of the reason/nature opposition are correspondingly to Plumwood connected by linking postulates which create a mapping between the pairs which are usually made implicitly within the cultural background. For example, the postulate that all humans and only humans possess nature matches the culture/nature with the human/nature pair. Or the assumption that the sphere of reason is masculine maps the reason/body pair on the male/female pair(Plumwood, 1993, p.45).

Mathew (2017) suggests that the origin for the tradition of dualistic thought could be found in the reason/nature dualism when the world became object to the human mind. The beginning of theorization, created the subject of the educated white male striving to comprehend human and non human world. At this time, with the rise of science more modern dualisms like subject/object emerged.

Another notion that endorses the objectification of humans over nature encompassed the anthropocentric image of the human as the only species which possesses mental abilities and as a consequence upgrading human's life experiences over those of nature. The attitude of anthropocentrism predicates that due to humans mental qualities merely humans are morally valuable and that anything else only matters if it can be utilized for humans needs (Mathew, 2017, p. 54).

It is not differences between humans that are responsible for separation but the way the distinctions have been treated, the further assumptions about them and the imposed relation on the members of the contrasting pairs. Dualisms vary from dichotomies or simple oppositions insofar that they are constructed hierarchical and by the means of power. Therefore not all differences between identities have to result in dualism (Plumwood, 1993, p. 47).

2.2, The master identity and the colonized “other”

“Dualism is a process in which power forms identity.” (Plumwood, 1993, p. 43)

In regards to Plumwood the historic dualistic conception of culture and nature, as well as the historical inferiority of women, in the west have been based on a network of gender assumptions (Plumwood, 1993, p.33).

One assumption includes the identification of the female with the sphere of nature, physicality and matter, another that nature and thus all orders associated with nature are inferior to the superior order that are constructed in dualistic opposition.

On the other hand there is the assumption that men inhabit the sphere of reason which claims superiority over nature and in which true humanity and reason takes place. Also reason and nature are constructed as dualistic contrast.

All those assumptions made about gender, the attributed areas and qualities of life and their mutually exclusive construction are undermining the relations that humans and nature as well as human with other humans define.

Women's linking with the devalued nature has been the starting point for the building of an elite masculine identity that delimits the feminine identity. Male dominated culture defines masculinity and femininity in contrasting forms for example men as active and women as passive, men intellectual and women intuitive/emotional. Therefore a contrasting idea of the human renders masculine and feminine as incongruous identities. This concept of the human is masculine and phallocentric, situated in the sphere of reason, culture and freedom.

Dualism creates the identity by hierarchy of one and subordination of the other model. Thus for Plumwood it was not as much masculine identity that formed ideals of western culture but the idea of a master and a colonized other which can be utilized for the masters needs while denying the other as independent from him and with their own needs. The master's identity exists only in relation to the subordinated other and interacts as a form of rationality, a framework for the self and western culture itself which has accepted this identity (Plumwood, 1993, p.191).

By means of dualism the lesser term is incorporated into the identity of the master which forms their identity. From the logic of the master he represents everything that the other is not and vice versa and his identity is established in control over lower orders classed as nature, such as animals, marginalized humans and women.

Because the idea of humans prevailing nature due to their mental abilities has been naturalized, the dominant identity became to represent the human model itself. Consequently the master identity has justified his actions by utilizing reason as a tool to transcend nature creating a narrative of acting in favor of whole humanity (Plumwood, 1993, p.192).

Notably the single identities and the attributes, traits and areas of life are not natural conditions but the product of a mutually exclusive idea of the human which is shaped by the denial of one another. Once the process of domination forms culture and constructs identity the subordinated group must internalize this inferiorization in its identity otherwise sanction, exclusion or elimination is the consequence. Because the western concept of the human is gendered, what it means to become fully human is often distorted by what it means to become a women or men.

2.3 Features of the human/nature dualism

Plumwood (1993) describes the underlying mechanisms of the human/nature dualism with five features which are characteristic for human/nature relations.


Backgrounding is the process in which the master denies the dependency of the other by making the other's identity invaluable and unimportant (Plumwood, 1993, p.48). Examples are the devaluation of women's care work or the exploitation of natures' resources for capitalistic purposes.

The master foregrounds his own identity and worth and obscures the real role of the other which is both to serve the masters needs and tojustify his domination.

Furthermore the denial of the dependency on nature and women shows in their mutually disregarded treatment and their taken for granted contribution to the necessities of life. Women have been backgrounded as housewives, mothers, nurses or secretaries and even if their position is not explicit it structures their roles in the public and private realm (Plumwood, 1993, p.21).


Excerpt out of 17 pages


How has the discourse about dualism within feminist ecology changed?
Dualism and its development within critical feminist discourse and eco-philosophy
Humboldt-University of Berlin
Feminist Political Ecology
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
feminist ecology, FPE, feminist politcal ecology, greek philosophy, environmental philosophy, re/productivity, naturecultures, feminism of uncritical equality, feminism of uncritical reversal, dualism, hierarchical dualism, master identity, plumwood, relationality
Quote paper
Pauline Dirscherl (Author), 2020, How has the discourse about dualism within feminist ecology changed?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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