Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

From Mimesis to Metaphor: Reconciling Nature and Humanity in the Age of Climate Crisis

Environmental humility is integral to addressing the climate crisis, but humility can also lead to political domination. How can humans relate to nature more humbly without risking domination?

2023 - 2025
Rebecca Ploof

The climate crisis is often seen as a product of human hubris and our efforts to dominate the planet. This has led many environmental thinkers to argue that humanity’s collective ego must be humbled, and the human-nature relationship reimagined to reflect greater humility. But humility is a politically indeterminate value that can easily lead to domination. Self-assertion is integral to democracy and autonomous self-government, and projects that promote humility can undermine respect for humans as beings deserving of freedom. How can we relate to the environment with increased humility, but without risking political domination?

‘From Mimesis to Metaphor’ uses the history of political thought to develop a theory of the human-nature relationship in which humans are both similar to and different from nature. Writing in the mid-20th century, early Frankfurt School theorists presciently understood humanity’s domination of nature to lead to human domination as well. They pointed to ‘mimesis’—a form of representation through which humans imitate the environment—as the way to overcome domination. By contrast, this project turns to metaphor. Metaphor, as cognitive linguists and philosophers of language have shown, structures rational thought and sustains contradiction. Through metaphor, humanity can be theorized as both identical and non-identical to nature. This self-conception is key to ensuring that, in constraining human self-assertion for the sake of the planet, we don’t abandon our understanding of humans as distinct and worthy of freedom.

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