Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Metaphor, Chaos and New Directions in Environmental Ethics

Patricia Fleming.

Dominion over nature, interchanged with stewardship of nature, were operative metaphors meant to inform us of our right relationship in nature or with our environment. These relations depended, in part, on stability in nature. We are now confronted by recent advances in the sciences, notably ecology and biology regarding our perspective on nature. Nature, we are told, is in constant flux.

The current science of ecology has taken our referent of nature and destabilized it. We, in turn, have become disoriented, losing any belief in our ability to control or master nature. Chaos theory is an illustrative example of this changed perspective. As Carolyn Merchant puts it, “Chaos is the reemergence of nature as power over humans, nature as active, dark, wild, turbulent, and uncontrollable…” Unpredictability, non-linearity, interdependence, irreversibility, bifurcations, fluctuation, complexity and diversity are all aspects of a new paradigm for understanding nature.

Should we now turn to this new paradigm of chaos for our new guidance? Only if we understand a new way of imaging the connection between nature and value will be helped. Only if we come to a realization of how deeply metaphorical our understanding is of our relations between nature and the moral life will we be able to resolve the environmental crises we face.

I demonstrate how certain philosophical difficulties can be overcome by recognizing the potential metaphorical connection between descriptive nature and prescriptive ethics. We are relieved of the philosophical difficulty in literally using nature as our moral guide. A virtuously circularity can exist between nature as described and the moral life as prescribed. In the end, I sketch the outlines of the metaphorical extension of chaos theory to environmental ethics and what this might mean for solving global environmental concerns


Patricia Fleming  (United States)
Senior Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Philosophy
College of Arts and Sciences
Creighton University

  • Metaphor
  • Chaos Theory
  • Environmental ethics
  • global environmental problems

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)