Book Plug: Susanne Claxton’s Heidegger’s Gods: An Ecofeminist Perspective

By David Utsler (Ph.d. candidate at the University of North Texas and co-author of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics.)

With the publication of Heidegger’s Gods: An Ecofeminist Perspective, Susanne Claxton has provided an engaging and fresh contribution to the literature of both ecofeminism and eco-phenomenology. Reflecting on the many afflictions that plague human existence, Claxton observes that we humans either never knew or have perhaps “forgotten how to fully dwell,” by which she means “to meaningfully exist as that which we are in the context of all that exists and to which we are intimately related.” Indeed, dwelling as meaningful existence (as Ricoeur would say “with and for others in just institutions”) does appear to be in short supply if the numerous very serious problems facing human existence to which Claxton refers are any indication.

Claxton begins by examining the thought of Martin Heidegger, specifically, his engagement with the Greeks with a particular focus on the notion of a-letheia—that is, truth as that which is “un-forgotten” or “un-concealed,” from the place it had been forgotten and concealed. It is in chapter 4 where Claxton returns to the idea of dwelling, or as the chapter is titled, “Our Loss of Dwelling.” After providing a very succinct and very good overview and history of ecofeminism, she discusses four causal explanations traditionally held by ecofeminists that reveal the logic of domination behind subjugation of women and nature, indeed all forms of subjugation and oppression. These are 1) the scientific revolution and its accompanying mechanistic view of the world; 2) “the rise of capitalism and its accompanying colonialist/imperialist practices,” 3) the advent of patriarchal religion and the patriarchy in general, and 4) self and other dualisms. It is this 4th in which I am particularly interested.

Of the many ecofeminist thinkers to which Claxton refers, I was surprised at the absence of any reference to the late Val Plumwood. Claxton’s already excellent work here on dualisms would have benefitted from an engagement with Plumwood’s work. I am thinking especially of the second chapter of Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, “Dualism: The Logic of Colonisation.” Plumwood described dualisms as having a character of radical exclusion and a relation of power where the oppressed side of the dualism is seen as essentially inferior and the other essential superior. Claxton noted that a universal character of dualisms is “to establish value hierarchies and determine what constitutes the norm” (94). The norm, of course, flows from the dominant side of the dualism. Another insight of Claxton’s that could be underscored by Plumwood is that the subjugated side of the dualism is homogenized as a group, individuality reduced to this homogenization, hence rather than a “powerful self” one may discover, “the other is negated” under the normative force of the dominant side of the dualism.

The consequence of the four causes of the logic of domination is the loss of dwelling. Claxton’s key insight here is the loss of dwelling entails a loss of self. A fundamental principle of hermeneutics is that all understanding (interpretation) is simultaneously an understanding of self. A loss of dwelling compromises the interpretation we might have of the world in which we exist, so a compromised understanding of self is inevitable if this is the case. Claxton writes: “Perhaps it should not be surprising that human beings, subjected from birth to systems of existence that operate primarily on principles of domination and denigration, ultimately opt to forego the depths and tread only on the surface. Such human beings simply await their optimization” (95), This is, perhaps, the most crucial observation in the book.

There are far more riches in this text than can be mentioned in a brief review. I would like to give special notice, however, to chapter 6, “Beyond the Binary.” Environmental philosophy has long been plagued, in my view, with the debates surrounding eco/biocentrism and anthropocentrism. If we just recognize the correct “center” from which to reason, our environmental ethic and practice will be as it should be. Ecofeminism in general and Val Plumwood in particular have seen the problem with this binary and Claxton has contributed an excellent ecophenomenological perspective to the discussion. She coins the term “Daseincentrism” to refer to what she describes as a way to potentially overcome what is problematic in the binary. Elsewhere, I have proposed what I call “polycentrism,” which is a recognition of several “centers” from which valid claims emerge and can be critically addressed. Daseincentrism appears to aim at a similar goal.

Heidegger’s Gods: An Ecofeminist Perspective should be widely read and also makes an excellent text to assign in courses for both ecofeminism and ecophenomenology. Highly recommended.