A Short Note on Dualism

The prominent and late ecofeminist Val Plumwood (2002) provides a penetrating analysis of the structure of dualism, an essential component of hierarchies in all their forms and as well as a key driver of the damaged human-nature dialectic. Plumwood (2002) reminds us that many of the traditional, interrelating, and mutually reinforcing dichotomies that have persisted since time immemorial such as culture/nature, human/animal, subject/object, self/other, reason/emotion, male/female, white/black, mind/body, and civic/domestic are not inherently dualistic. That is, distinctions don’t always nor need they result in dualisms or the ‘antagonistic structuring of otherness’ (Bookchin, 2005; Plumwood, 2002, pg. 41). Rather, dualism is a distinctly alienated form of differentiation whereby assumptions of inferiority are made (incorrectly so) about the subordinated ‘other’ and any qualities associated with it. This morphs the relations between the relata into dualistic form, characterized by radical exclusion (rigid hyper-separation whereby Master defines himself against the inferior ‘other’, who is relegated to an entirely different order of being), domination, backgrounding (denial of dependency on/significance of the other), incorporation (construing the subordinate ‘other’ as a lack in relation to the Master identity rather than as an autonomous entity), instrumentalization or commodification, and homogenization (Plumwood, 2002, pg. 47; Diehm, 2003). Plumwood (2002) poignantly adds that “a major aim of dualistic construction is polarization, to maximize distance or separation between the dualised spheres and to prevent their ever being seen as continuous or contiguous”, which in turn serves to ‘naturalize domination’ (pg. 49; 54).

The paradoxical nature of the classical logic that underpins dualism is such that the master identity (M) is construed as ‘the universe’ and ‘the other’ is only distinguishable as the absence or negation of M (~M). Thus the ‘other’ is not independently or positively identified but rather is “entirely dependent on M for its specification”, and simply construed as lack of M (pg. 56). Negation in relevant logic, by contrast, leads to a non-hierarchical notion of otherness by positing it not as lack of M (~M) but as “another and further condition- a difference– yielding a concept of the ‘other’ which is not just specified negatively but is independently characterized” (pg. 59). Plumwood (2002) concludes by noting that overcoming dualism and hierarchy requires that we develop non-hierarchical concepts of difference that “recognizes our dependence on others, conceives of relations between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in more integrated ways, reviews and reclaims positive sources of identities of ‘self’ and ‘other’ (critical reconstruction and affirmation), recognizes the needs of the other as independent and deserving of respect, and recognizes the value in complexity and diversity (pg. 60).” Thus, herein lies the danger in the seemingly altruistic idea that emphasizing what makes us like one another is an adequate basis for affinity, as in, ‘He or she should be loved, respected, and treated kindly because he/she is just like us.’ This line of thinking ultimately leads to the relegation of the ‘others’, those who are not like us, to an inferior realm. An affinity for sameness can and should also go along with a love for difference and diversity.

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