WORKSHOP – Environmental Philosophy and the Meanings of Nature

Durham U logoA 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?


  • Alan Holland (Lancaster)
  • David E. Cooper (Durham)
  • Tim Ingold (Aberdeen)
  • Marion Hourdequin (Colorado College)
  • Martin Drenthen (Radboud University Nijmegen)
  • Glenn Deliège (KU Leuven and Radboud University Nijmegen)

The workshop will run from 15:30 on 2 July to 15:00 on 3 July.

It will take place in the Wallis Room at St John’s College, Durham University 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.

Durham-University-2Accommodation for the night of 2 July is likely to be available at Durham’s ‘Bailey’ Colleges:

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 (