Theses Doctoral

On Human Separatism

Mylius, Benjamin

This is a dissertation about human separatism. Human separatism is the social imaginary according to which Humanity should aim to use technology to “separate” itself from nature. It is incoherent and self-undermining. But it has also proven persistent and resilient, and appears to be intensifying in the face of fears about phenomena like climate change.

In chapter 1 I unpack three distinct conceptions of “separation” that I argue have prevailed at different times in European philosophical and cultural history. The first is ontological, or related to being; the second is epistemological, or related to knowing; and the third is “nomological”, or related to law-making and laws. These correspond roughly to Ancient thought (in Plato and Augustine), Early Modern thought (in Bacon and Descartes) and Modern thought (in Kant and the contemporary “Ecomodernists”), respectively. I also offer some reasons for concluding that the concept of separation is in general incoherent.

In chapter 2 I reflect upon why this imaginary has proven so difficult to overcome. Specifically, following existential psychology, I propose that it is a perverse manifestation of terrors that are central to the human condition. In particular it is a manifestation of the fears we have as human beings about our limited agency and our mortality or finitude. These fears are powerful enough to override rational thinking. Insofar as fantasies about separation from nature provide a salve for them, these fantasies persist over time. Insofar as fears of death and mortality are more and more front-and-centre for us as individuals and collectives, these fantasies become ever-more resilient to critique, and continue to intensify.
In chapter 3 I consider some challenges that emerge when we attempt to gather resources for imaginative alternatives to separatism. I consider the ideas that we might either (a) invent a new story from whole cloth, or (b) appropriate the stories and theories of other cultures and attempting to graft them onto our own. I reject these approaches, and explore some resources from critical ecofeminism as intellectual tools to understand them, and develop some design parameters for alternative approaches.
In chapter 4, I explore the narratives of some First Nations Australian cosmologies as they speak to the relationship between human beings and the natural world in the work of the First Nations writers Mary Graham and Tyson Yunkaporta. I then consider what might be involved in presenting some of these same insights in terms that adhere to the design parameters I set out in chapter 3. I propose that the genre of narrative tragedy is a powerful place to do some of this work. To flesh out this claim, I offer a series of detailed reflections on narrative tragedy, drawing on the work of Julian Young, and suggest that tragic narratives offer a powerful place for metabolizing existential anxieties, for coming to terms with ecological reality, and for encouraging and engaging in dialogue about imaginative alternative futures.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-06-15.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David Chambliss
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2023