The Western View of Nature and its Implications: The Obscurities Between Human-to-Human and Human-to-Nature Interactions.

Yaeir Heber

The Western Tradition’s deeply embedded culturally based dichotomy between Nature and Culture informs not only the interactions between humans and the non-human world, but also significantly inform particular areas of human-to-human interactions.  Western though attributes uniquely to humans, that ability to master and utilize nature for their own betterment (betterment of the species).  Technology is the means through which civilized humans execute this unique capacity.  The “advancement” of a peoples technology could thus be viewed (by westerners) as a measure of the degree to which these peoples have realized their potential, obligation, and in a way their humanity. Thus, those who fail to fulfill this characteristic interaction with the natural world are seen not only as squandering their (G-d given) potential, but also as less beneficial to the human species and thus less deserving of access to means of existence.


Notions of human beings’ distinction from, and supremacy over, nature emerged much earlier than the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution.  Such ideas can be found as far back in the western tradition as the Old Testament.  In Genesis, human distinction and supremacy play key roles in the creation of the world.  G-d explicitly states the role he wishes man to take on in the world:

And G-d said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.…

And G-d blessed them, and G-d said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over … every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And G-d said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. (Genesis 1.26-69)

Furthermore, Genesis also conveys a subtler manner in which the notion of human dominance was deep within its writers’ psychology.  By having Adam name all of the animals, the very identity and character of non-human life is being defined in human terms, within the human psyche, and in the human mode of discourse:

And out of the ground the LORD G-d formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.… And Adam said, this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2.19-23)

It is worthy to note that Adam derived the woman’s name in terms of man, an idea still embodied in our language today.


During the Greek civilization, the human role developed not only mastery over nature, but also the capability to improve the human condition through nature’s manipulation.  The goal of improvement or ‘betterment’ was the motivation of the Greek’s civilizing endeavors according to Aristotle: “…for some presumed Good is the end of all action…” (Aristotle 350:1)  More so, he considers it part of the “natural” order that man achieve good for himself, his family and state, through acquisition—from nature: “Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored” (Aristotle 350:3).  Technologies were precisely the mechanisms which allowed man to execute more and more “aquiring” and general “bettering.” In antiquity technology had fully achieved a new ethos that has remained prevalent through the current day. There transpired “a shift from the technologies through which prehistoric humans adapted to the natural environment, to the more ambitious, environmentally aggressive projects of antiquity” (Chant 1999:55). 


The Greek word from which we inherit technology—techne—reflects this notion and ultimately a particular, dichotomized, world-view.  “Techne means ‘technical knowledge’. Where episteme may be ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’, techne is instrumental or oriented towards the deliberate production of something” (Tabachnick 2004:92).  As we know from historical evidence, the sources for this production were nature.  Techne can thus also be defined as knowledge for the manipulation of nature on behalf of man.  A ship, or a plow, for example, is techne, as each is a means through which man can overcome nature’s forces.  At an imperial level, this principle had huge implications.  In a shared tradition, the Greeks and Romans, contributed to a general Aristotelian ‘Good’ by “acquiring” from natural sources: “In their drives to promote their civilizations both the Greeks and Romans also promoted a mindless deforestation of the Mediterranean” as well as other less obvious detrimental effects such as immense increases in lead levels (Harrison 1992:55) (Hong 1994:1842).  Their understanding of the effective world was so hegemonically anthropocentric and they viewed the natural world as being so infinitely expendable, that their supposedly enhancing acquisitions were in fact quite detrimental to the greater-than-human world:

It is hard to image that a civilization as brilliant as the Greeks, or an empire engineered and administered so efficiently as the Romans, could be so blind in their practices as to bring about the ruin of the very ground on which their survivals were based…. To them, it seems that nature could be ravished and plundered as men wished. They saw no reason why men should not take what they wanted as often as they wanted. (Harrison 1992:55)


During the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, ideas of human domination and utilization of nature were re-proliferated into mainstream thought.  Harvey informs us that it is misguided to caricature the Enlightenment as an intellectually homogenous period:

Enlightenment thinkers embraced, however, a vaster panalopy of proposals than those voiced by liberal theorists. Some of these were so perverse and oppositional that there is room to debate whether they deserve to be even looked upon as part of the Enlightenment corpus sensu strictu. (Harvey 1996:125)

While this intellectual diversity was in fact present, it is clear that the paradigmatic tradition to emerge from the period was one of analytical science and reductionism: “Scientists as well as nonscientists frequently retain the popular belief that ‘if you want to know the ultimate explanation, you have to ask a physicist,’ which is clearly a Cartesian fallacy” (Capra 1997:13).  Additionally in this era, there was a reaffirmation of the uniquely human malleability and the obligation to utilize it.  In the fifteenth century, man was thought of as “the most fortunate of creatures and therefore worthy of all admiration” (Pico 1486:2).  The glory of man was that G-d left us to rise to an infinite potential on our on accord:

Thus he took man as the product of an indeterminate nature… The other creatures have a fixed nature which is fixed within limits prescribed by me. You, unhampered, may determine your own limits according to you own will…I have placed you in the center of the world; from there you can better see whatever is in the world. (Pico 1486:3)

The responsibility to realize man’s infinite potential is thus placed in man’s hands.  Interestingly, some of the highest achievements are reached by ‘cultivating the G-d planted seeds’ of rationality and intellect (Pico 1486:3).  Descartes and Bacon embraced this idea and added another layer.  To them it was specifically the proper application of rationality and intellect that elevated the human being:  “For to be possessed with good mental power is not sufficient; the principal matter is to apply them well” (Descartes 1637:7).  This proper application echoed the Greek idea of acquisitions by applying rationality and intellect to the apprehension and command of nature, “…that man… is the interpreter of nature through the keenness of his senses, by rational inquiry, [and] by the light of his intellect” (Pico 1486:3).  While at one point in the Discourse on Method, Descartes claims to have dedicated himself, righteously, only to:

…acquire some knowledge of nature, which shall be of such a kind that it will enable us to arrive at rules for Medicine more assured than those which have as yet been attained; and my inclination is so strongly opposed to any other kind of pursuit… (Descartes 1637:24).

He elsewhere in the piece he reveals additional intentions, reflecting the aquisititious culture in which he participated:

I also thought I should likewise be certain of obtaining all the best things that could ever come within my power. …best judgment brings the best action—that is to say, the acquisition of all the virtues and all the other good things it is possible to obtain. (Descartes 1637:21-2)

Perhaps Bacon most directly states his opinion of why developing rational science will realize the human potential, obligation—or to Bacon–entitlement: 

…a way must be opened for the human understanding entirely different from an hitherto known, and other helps provided, in order that the mind may exercise over the nature of things the authority which properly belongs to it. (Bacon 1620:1)


The grounds for European domination in the power struggle between the Europeans and the natives of the New World were founded upon two key ideas.  First, failing to fully utilize their natural surroundings, the natives seemed less deserving of the ‘natural resources’ than the Europeans, who by fulfilling their human potential to manipulate nature, could make more use of the land.  Initially, however, the Europeans, being disoriented in the new nature, admired the natives’ knowledge of survival: “This remarkable document [The Drake Manuscript] attests to…the extent to which they [Europeans] learned to survive by adapting indigenous technologies and knowledges” (Sheller 2003:41).  Yet during these initial stages the mindset of acquisition and consumption was already emerging.  Drawings of new plants from The Drake Manuscript were annotated not only with visual observations but also with potential uses for the given plant (Sheller 2003:41).  As the Europeans became more familiar with the natural elements present in the New World, they looked down upon the natives’ so-called inability to fully utilize them:  “…he was most struck by the lack of cultivation in the island…. This required certain kinds of power, which European colonizers thought the indigenousness people were incapable of” (Sheller 2003:47-8).  The Europeans observed that the natives did not even have the frame of mind to comprehend many technologies.  The ends for which technology provided means, were not considered by the natives to be part of the human interaction with their natural surroundings.  They thus resorted to supernatural explanations for the Europeans seemingly a-human behavior:

Africans have no natural frame of reference from which to comprehend these wondrous devices and cannot imagine humans creating them, they resort to superstitious notions rooted in witchcraft to explain them. (Adas 1989:2)


Secondly, native populations did not realize an epistemology of ration and its acquisitive applications and were thus seen as a failure of the human potential. When resource utilization a realization of humanity, technology is, in its most literal sense, a measure of man. Writers such as Sepulveda considered Europeans to be “by nature the masters” (Sepulveda 1547:2).  More specifically, referring back to Pico’s conception of malleable humanity those who did not cultivate their seeds of ration or intellect will be realized as “a plant” or “a brute” both beings that are lesser than the Europeans realization of humanity (Pico 1486:3).  More so, not only are these beings lower in the hierarchy of human possibilities, they are also the very things man is given dominion over in the bible, and are the very things man must manipulate in order to rise to his potential.  In other words, the natives became a very part of the nature that the Europeans, by definition of their humanity, were to utilize.  Europeans were able to view local people being scenically incorporated into the natural paradigm (Sheller 2003:62, 66).  Sheller mentions the amalgamation of the natives with the landscape in the context of tourism and romanticist idealism in the nineteenth century, but I propose that it was this same effect, in a different context that aided the colonial exploitation, enslavement, and domination of the native’s and their land by Europeans.


It is interesting to consider how these notions informed and still inform the relationship between men and women—another group whose oppression and marginalization has been determined greatly by the western conception of nature, yet differently than the aforementioned case.  The basis of ecofeminist philosophy is “that women’s inclusion in the realm of nature had been a major tool in their oppression…” (Plumwood 1993:1). Their association with nature differs from that of the natives of the new world in that women are not integrated with a specific landscape, nor seen as a resource to be manipulated via techne.  Their naturality manifested more emotionally in the male psyche:

The depiction of nature as feminine, however, did not only license an oppressive male politics of domination and oppression…. So while, in the highly gendered and oppressive metaphorics of Francis Bacon, abundant evidence could be culled for the linkage between the domination of nature and domination of women, and while in colonial literature abundant support can be found for the domination of nature being rendered equivalent to the domination of ‘natives’ (usually depicted as ‘natural’ beings), the straight equation of such attitudes to all forms of masculine desire is suspect. (Harvey 1996:137).

In the ‘natural order’ women were seen not as exploiters, but as nourishers. Some how, women were not participants of a tradition of, and thus not expected to participate in the technological domination of the natural world.  From the earliest civilizations up until very recently they were excluded from essentially all technological development and usage.  The main exception to this is woman’s role in textile fabrication, but even here we see it is men who execute the steps that directly consume the environment—for example the harvesting and processing of flax (Schneider 1989:196). Women, unlike the natives of the New World, were not seen as squanderers of progress, or as failures to achieve the aforementioned human potential, for they had never been included in such a discourse, ‘utilizer’ had never been part of their culturally frames roles. Women are excluded from Pico’s model of man’s malleability and are rather lumped in with the group of “other creatures [which] have a defined nature which is fixed…” (Pico 1486:2).  Likewise, in Genesis Adam named Eve along with the other animals, defining her in is own terms, and distinguishing her place in the ‘natural order’ as an assistant: “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (2.23). 


In this context it is easier to understand the intentions behind liberal feminism.  By demanding a role in the masculine dominating society they attempt to prove women are as capable of ascending Pico’s being-ladder as men are; they too can wield and ax or design and build a dam.  Unfortunately, as Plumwood critiques: “Women, in this strategy, are to join elite in participation in areas which…. exhibits most strongly the virtues of transcendence, control of and struggle with nature” (Plumwood 1993:27-8).  In this sense they are assimilating the very characteristics that initially instigated the power struggle.  If women are to disown their connection to nature, society will lose one of its last embodiments of a dichotomic transcendence, and be ‘unnaturally’ seated in a realm govern solely by ration and intellect.  As Shiva puts it:  “Unless the world is reconstructed ecologically at the level of world-views and life-styles, peace and justice will continue to be violated and ultimately the very survival of humanity with be threatened” (Shiva 1989:37).  Going back to the 17th century Christine de Pisan comprehended, using nature as a model, that it was not women’s failure to dominate, exploit or develop that was the source of misogyny, it was rather man’s straying from nature’s path that resulted in such an unnatural power struggle.  Mans actions are “…against nature because there is no bird or beast that does not naturally seek out its other half, that is to say the female. It is thus unnatural for man to do the contrary” (Pisan 1405:2). 


While functioning differently in regards to women and natives, it is quite unfortunate that Western Tradition’s perception of nature, and man’s role within it, has lead not only to a complete misinhabitation of our environment, and brought great unbalance unto the natural systems which we are a part of and with which we participate, but has likewise contributed greatly to the degradation of certain human-to-human interactions.  Most unfortunately, the peoples who have been victimized and mastered, would have been invaluable informants—not coincidentally—for restructuring of the mainstream world-view to one more holistically and ecologically founded.  Their lingering ability to ‘dwell,’ however, is ironically what has ultimately made them so susceptible to the west’s domination.     


Works Cited:

Aristotle. 350. Nichomachean Ethics. Greece.

Adas, Michael. 1989. "Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance", Cornell Univ. Press, pp. 1-35.

Bacon, Francis. 1620. The Great Instauration. England.

Capra, Frijof. 1996. The Web of Life. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Chant, Colin. 1999. "Chapter 2:Greece" in "Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology." Routledge Press. pp. 48-80.

de Pisan, Chistine. 1405. The Book of the City of Ladies.

Descartes, Rene. 1637. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences. Leyden.


Harrison, Robert Pogue. 1992. Forest: the Shadow of Civilization.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, David. 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Hong, Sungim. 1994. Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations. Science, vol. 256. pp.1841-1843.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.

Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. 1486. Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Sheller, Mimi. 2003. Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies. London: Routledge.

Schneider, Jane. 1989 “Rumpelstiltskin’s Bargain: Folklore and the Merchant Capitalist

Intensification of Linen Manufacture in Early Modern Europe.” Cloth and Human

Experience. Ed. Annette Weiner and Jane Schneider. Washington, DC:

Smithsonian. 177–213.

Sepulveda, Jaun Gines. 1547. Democrates Alter; or, on the Just Causes for War Against The Indians.

Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. London: Zed Books.

Tabachnick, David E. 2004. Techne Technology and Tragedy. Techné 7:3 spring 2004. Nipissing University.

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