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Durham University

Department of Philosophy

Environmental Philosophy and the Meanings of Nature


A workshop to be held on 2-3 July 2013 at Durham University, UK





The nature that is discussed by environmental scientists and policymakers often bears little resemblance to the nature people experience in the living of their lives. The former is frequently described in very abstract terms – as a collection of physical objects, for instance, or a repository of natural capital. Yet nature-as-experienced is more complicated and interesting than these descriptively thin accounts suggest. In particular, natural things, processes, places and events are typically experienced as meaningful – as pervaded, that is, with historical, political, mythic, religious and personal meanings.


This workshop is about those meanings. Its aim is to assess whether by turning our attention to the topic of meaning we might find ourselves better placed to understand our epistemic, moral and aesthetic relations with (more or less) natural environments. It will address questions such as the following:


  • How are the terms ‘nature’ and ‘meaning’ used in discussions of environmental issues? How, for instance, might an environmental historian’s use of ‘meaning’ differ from that of a philosopher of language?
  • How is one to identify nature’s meanings? Some have recommended that we view landscapes as being like ‘texts’ that can be read using the methods of philosophical hermeneutics. Could such approaches help us to understand ethical issues concerning practices such as re-wilding and the restoration of cultural landscapes?
  • What obstacles are faced by those who seek to take meaning-related considerations seriously? How might a commitment to scientism or a devotion to an overly ‘managerial’ vocabulary affect the weight accorded to such considerations?
  • Is it the case, as some have argued, that natural environments can be of value to us, not (or not simply) because they give us pleasure, but because they provide the foci of certain practices (such as farming or fell running) that contribute to the overall ‘meaningfulness’ of our lives?
  • By virtue of the meanings we find in it, nature can, amongst other things, inspire us, or fortify our resolve, or provide us with religious symbols, or shape our sense of who we are. According to those who adopt the ecosystems services framework, such benefits should be conceived as ‘cultural services’ that nature provides to humans. Is this a plausible suggestion?




2 July


15:00-15:30 Refreshments available in the Wallis Room, St John’s College

15:30-15:45 Welcome

15:45-16:45 Alan Holland, ‘Nature and our Sense of Loss’

16:45-17:00 Break

17:00-18:00 Tim Ingold, ‘The Weather-Dependence of Environmental Meaning’

18:15-19:15 Drinks reception at Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study

19:30 Dinner at ‘Zen’


3 July


09:00-10:00 David E. Cooper, ‘Taking “Meaning in Nature” Seriously’

10:00-10:15 Break

10:15-11:15 Marion Hourdequin, ‘Ecological Restoration, Continuity, and Change: Negotiating History in Layered Landscapes’

11:15-11:30 Break

11:30-12:30 Glenn Deliège, ‘BSE as a Crisis of Meaning: Reflections on David Wiggins's holy dread

12:30-14:00 Buffet lunch at St John’s

14:00-15:00 Martin Drenthen, ‘Landscapes, Narratives of Place and Moral Identity. A Hermeneutic Approach to Environmental Ethics’

15:00 Pub



Further details


The workshop will take place in the Wallis Room at St John’s College, Durham University. A map of Durham is available at St John’s College is located close to the cathedral on the wooded peninsular known as The Bailey. It is marked as number 17 on the map.


Accommodation for the night of 2 July is likely to be available at:



The workshop has been supported by Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and Department of Philosophy





Although there is no charge for attending the workshop, places are limited. So to avoid disappointment please register in advance by writing to Simon James (