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«Language & Ecology vol. 2 no. 3 (2008) WORLDVIEWS AND METAPHORS IN THE HUMAN-NATURE RELATIONSHIP: An Ecolinguistic Exploration Through the Ages. By ...»

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Language & Ecology vol. 2 no. 3 (2008)


An Ecolinguistic Exploration Through the Ages.

By Frans C. Verhagen

This article shows how language has construed and communicated humankind’s relationship to

Nature from the early beginnings of civilization to the very present. It categorizes the major

metaphors used to describe the human-Nature relationship into those that mainly represent either an anthropocentric worldview or a biocentric worldview. Predominant in the linguistic corpus for the former worldview are the metaphors Nature as scala naturae, Nature as machine, while for the latter worldview the metaphors of Nature as mother, Nature as web, Nature as measure are predominant. The linguistic corpus of this article in historical ecology consists of nine historical texts by evolutionary biologists, cosmologists, and cultural historians in Europe and North America.


“Every age has its own unique view of nature, its own interpretation of what the world is all about. Knowing a civilization’s concept of Nature is tantamount to knowing how a civilization thinks and acts.” 1


The sorrowful plight of planet Earth at the beginning of this new millennium is the result of human activities that have reduced the quality of life of both humankind and other members of the Earth community. Varied attempts on all levels of government, business, and civil society have been and are being made to redress the situation. However, no real or lasting progress in improving the quality of life of planet and people can be made without a critical assessment of a person’s or

society’s value system and its often implicit worldview. States American biologist Botkin:

“The potential for us to make progress with environmental issues is limited by the basic assumptions that we make about nature, the unspoken, often unrecognized perspective from which we view our environment. This perspective, ironically in the scientific age, depends on myth and deeply buried beliefs. In order to gain a new view, one necessary to deal with global environmental problems, we must break free of old assumptions and old myths about nature and ourselves, while building on the scientific and technical advances of the past.” 2 In any such assessment of worldviews and its relationship to Nature the role of language is of paramount importance. Language carries, communicates and construes the meaning of Nature, humankind’s place in Nature, and the relationship between social and ecological peace. Thus, one of the major functions of the new science of ecolinguistics3 is to contribute to the unmasking of myths, assumptions, and ideologies that underlie the public’s and scientists’ notions of Nature and related issues. It is particularly in the linguistic device of the metaphor that these assumptions are communicated.

Metaphors are important linguistic devices. They are one of our primary means of Language & Ecology vol. 2 no. 3 (2008) conceptualizing the world. Their power is derived from their ability to assimilate new experiences to familiar patterns of perception; to project one knowledge domain onto another so as to allow the newer or


domain of experience to be understood in terms of the other and more concrete one.4 However, metaphors are often used unquestionably as common sense expressions with which one has grown up. One tends to forget that they are partial conceptualizations of reality, because, as Goatly has pointed out, highlighting and suppression of experience necessarily involves “ignoring of differences and highlighting of selected similarities.”5 Therefore, it is necessary to critically analyze metaphors in order to unmask what they hide and to discover the interests that are at stake in the use of particular metaphors. According to Chalton and Lakoff metaphors need to be discussed out in the open both by academics and the public, because what metaphors entail is a crucial topic for theoretical discussion. Alternative metaphors need to be formulated and thoroughly aired.6 Therefore, the purpose of this article is to investigate how metaphors have construed and communicated the human-Nature relationship in various cultures and different time periods. The corpus for this ecolinguistic exploration consists primarily of the prefaces, the introductory and concluding chapters of nine book-length texts (Table 1) and secondarily of selected keywords as they appear in the indices of these texts (Table 2). The authors of these texts were selected on the basis of historical reach and diversity in disciplinary background. As regards geographic distribution, however, they were selected primarily because of their connection with Western culture.

TABLE 1 Selected texts with the disciplinary background of their authors

Daniel B. Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21rst Century. (New York:

Oxford University Press, 1990)--Biology and environmental sciences Peter J. Bowler, The Environmental Sciences. (New York:,Norton,1992)--History of science, Modern history of civilizations.

Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way. (New York: Morrow, 1988)--Science writing.

Peter Marshall, Nature's Web. Rethinking Our Place On Earth. (New York: Paragon House,1994)--History of ideas.

Elisabeth Sahtouris, Gaia: The Human Journey From Chaos to Cosmos. (New York: Pocket Books. 1989)--Evolutionary biology.

Brian Swimme and Thomas. Berry, The Universe Story From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era. A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. (San Francisco: Harper, 1992 )-Cosmology and cultural history.

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History. The First Abridged One-Volume Edition; Illustrated. (New York: Weathervane, 1972)--Traditional history of civilizations.

Donald Worster, Nature's Economy. A History of Ecological Ideas. Second Edition. (New York:

Language & Ecology vol. 2 no. 3 (2008) Cambridge University Press. 1994)--History of ideas.

TABLE 2 Keywords anthropic principle, anthropocentrism, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, balance of nature, biocentrism, catastrophism, chain of being, creation, culture, diversity, dominion, dominance, Earth Goddess, economy of Nature, environment, environmentalism, evolution, Gaia, man(kind), machine, mechanical philosophy, Nature, order/disorder, natural philosophy, natural theology, partnership, philosophy of Nature, religion, symbiosis, unity, uniformitarianism, universe.

The Thorndike-Barnhardt dictionary lists about a dozen meanings for the term nature. One of these is the “sum total of all things in the physical universe” or, using the words of Pliny the Elder, Nature as “everything not made by humans”. In line with several of the texts that form the corpus of this study, Nature is used in this broad sense here. It is not limited to planet Earth or the Earth’s biosphere7 but to the whole universe in which all things are bound together in the intimacy of “friendship” because of their unity of origin.8 The article is organized into three sections. The first two sections deal with one of the two main worldviews into which the metaphors about the human-Nature relationship that have emerged from the above corpus are categorized, i.e. the anthropocentric worldview (section 1) and the biocentric one (section 2). The third section discusses the social manifestations of each set of metaphors.

Though the anthropocentric and biocentric metaphors are discussed separately for analytical purposes, it is to be noted that these metaphors and their associated worldviews existed and exist in dominant or subdominant positions in different cultures and, sometimes in the same culture during different time periods.


The anthropocentric worldview consists of a more or less consistent set of explicit and implicit concepts, assumptions, biases and ideologies that place the human being at the center of the Earth and even the Universe. This worldview is often associated with a utilitarian attitude towards Nature. That is, it considers Nature to be an instrument for human ends without taking into reasonable account the needs and rights of other life forms and Earth systems themselves. An essential component of the anthropocentric worldview, therefore, is the dominator model of the human-Nature relationship where, according to Francis Bacon, man - particularly the male - is not only the lord of creation, but also its principle of order.

“Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world...For the whole world works together in the service of man; and there is nothing from which he does not derive use and fruit...insomuch that all things seem to going about man’s business and not their own.”9 The anthropic principle can also be considered part of the anthropocentric worldview. According to Ferris this principle refers to “the doctrine that the value of certain fundamental constants in nature can be explained by demonstrating that, were they otherwise, the universe could not Language & Ecology vol. 2 no. 3 (2008) support life and therefore would contain nobody capable of worrying about why they are as they are.” In other words, Nature exists to support life, human life. Ferris gives the example of the strong nuclear force: if it were slightly different in strength, the stars could not shine and life as we know it would be impossible.10 Two anthropocentrically oriented metaphors for the human -Nature relationship figured predominantly in the selected texts: Nature as scala naturae, Nature as machine.

Nature as scala naturae

Generally translated as the Chain of Being, scala naturae, which literally means the Ladder or Stairway of Nature, goes back to classical Greek culture. It also figured prominently in the Renaissance of the late Middle Ages when Aristotle was introduced into the West via Muslim scholarship.11 Aristotle believed (as did Plato) that Nature was ordered and beautiful with all creatures given their place in a proper hierarchy. In this hierarchical order there was not only ‘a fixity of species’, but also a continuity of species that did not allow for gaps or lost species. The place of humans and all observable life in this particular scheme of things was based upon degree of ‘perfection’ which, according to Aristotle, was determined by the ‘powers of the soul’. Thus, plants existed for the sake of animals, and animals for the sake of humans. According to Bowler, this metaphor clearly indicates that humans are the standard against which all other animals were to be measured.12 It was also believed that the scala naturae was divinely ordered. According to Aristotle, only a divine creator could explain this ordered chain of being. For Cicero this divinely ordered creation was for the safety and protection of all.13 Neo-platonists, such as Plotinus and Macrobius, who were essentially philosophers and theologians, interpreted the Chain of Being to mean that God must have necessarily created all conceivable forms of life from the lowest to the highest creatures, adhering to a notion of a single, linear scale of organization that Aristotle did not support. Viewing the world mainly as a symbol of divine perfection,14 they incorporated the principle of plenitude in their hierarchical view of Nature. That is, Nature had to be complete so that it could be a reflection of divine perfection. In this hierarchical and divinely inspired view of Nature, where everything was ordered and in balance, imbalance and disorder were considered a failure of the divine order caused by the acts of commission or omission on the part of humans.15 A major difficulty with the view of Nature suggested by the scala naturae metaphor was raised at the beginning of the scientific revolution in the 17th century when fossils pointed to extinction of species. If God had created every living form, how could gaps be explained in a chain of being that indicated continuity and plenitude? While some naturalists such as John Ray, could not abandon the notion of a static hierarchy in Nature and society that defined the scala naturae, others did. Charles Bonnet was prepared to admit that there might be ‘branches’ in the chain, thus nullifying the continuity principle. Other naturalists who wanted to maintain the continuity principle and come to grips with the fact of extinct species came up with the notion of ‘bridges’.

Thus, flying fish were considered intermediaries between birds and fish or corals between plants and animals. Bowler notes that the ideas of fixity and continuity of species grew ever more implausible as naturalists became more sophisticated and that the vast number of species being discovered in foreign parts made it seem increasingly less likely that the plan of creation was quite as simple as the chain concept supposed.16 Over time the view of the human-Nature relationship represented by the scala naturae changed Language & Ecology vol. 2 no. 3 (2008) drastically. After the Scientific Revolution the notion of its divine origin was gradually abandoned as different sciences began to attempt to answer questions about Nature without relying upon a religious interpretation. The same happened with the notion of the fixity of species after Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection became widely accepted.

Nature as machine

This metaphor, which also represents human dominion over Nature, separates pre-modern and modern views of the human-Nature relationship. It may be considered to construe and communicate the major content of the present day worldview in the Western world.

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