Environmental Ethics

Volume 14, Issue 4, Winter 1992

Christopher Manes
Pages 339-350

Nature and Silence

A viable environmental ethics must confront “the silence of nature”—the fact that in our culture only humans have status as speaking subjects. Deep ecology has attempted to do so by challenging the idiom of humanism that has silenced the natural world. This approach has been criticized by those who wish to rescue the discourse of reason in environmental ethics. I give a genealogy of nature’s silence to show how various motifs of medieval and Renaissance origins have worked together historically to create the fiction of “Man,” a character portrayed as sole subject, speaker, and telos of the world. I conclude that the discourse of reason, as a guide to social practice, is implicated in this fiction and, therefore, cannot break the silence of nature. Instead, environmental ethics must learn a language that leaps away from the motifs of humanism, perhaps by drawing on the discourse of ontological humility found in primal cultures, postmodern philosophy, and medieval contemplative tradition.

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