Interdependent Versus Dualistic Worldviews


By Madronna Holden 

In this lesson, we will be contrasting worldviews that see the natural world in a holistic or interdependent way with worldviews that see the natural world in a dualistic way—as made up of separate and mutually antagonistic pairs (e.g. human/ nature, body/mind, rational/emotional, male/ female, light/dark, life/death, active/passive, individual/society). Each element of a dualistic pair exists in opposition to its counterpart.  Further, dualism ranks its pairs hierarchically, (as higher and lower) and opposition rather than relationship and interdependence.  As Val Plumwood analyzes in detail, each “dominant” member of the dualistic pair sees itself as without any dependence whatever on the “lower” member.  In the dualistic framework the human world is thus seen not only as opposed to the natural one—but as without any dependence on the natural one.  In its emphasis on ranking, the dualistic worldview supports domination and competition between individuals and social classes, whereas the relational, mutual, or partnership worldview emphasizes cooperation between individuals and social groups, as well as between humans and nature.

The dualistic worldview is one dominated by a NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality described in the essays you are reading on Our Earth/Ourselves.

In examples from indigenous cultures in this week’s reading, we see holistic worldviews in which life and death, masculine and feminine, light and dark, and humans and the natural world are related in interdependent systems.  We also see how the perception of all living things as interdependent leads to particular environmental ethics:  such as controlling human populations in order to maintain the natural balance of life and death.

According to Suzuki and Knudtson, a parallel to indigenous perceptions of interdependence can be found in natural science in the idea of co-evolution.  Both Matthew Fox, from his Christian perspective, and Paula Gunn Allen, informed by her Laguna Pueblo background, see humans and the natural world evolving together in co-creation : in which human assume responsibility for witnessing, honoring, and helping to foster the abundance and diversity of Creation.  The stance of co-creation is what motivates the “world renewal” ceremonies described in Suzuki and Knudtson.

Taoism also expresses a holistic as opposed to a dualistic worldview in its emphasis on balance and interdependence. Taoism portrays the wise person as understanding the balance expressed in the energy (chi) of the natural world.  In Taoism’s yin/ yang symbol, symbol, neither yin nor yang has predominance over the other—instead they are dynamically interrelated, the white dot in the center of the black (yang) field indicating its yin element and black dot in the center of the white (yin) field indicate its yang element.  Artist and activist Lily Yeh noted that yin and yang “appear simultaneously and always in the company of each other.” This is due, in turn, to the dynamic balance of the world, in which “nothing is ever still,” and thus all things mingle with one another.  [i]

The emphasis on balance and proportion also implies that no human individual or society should draw too much energy from the natural system— and that what is drawn from that system should be returned in any way possible.  Several examples of this understanding are expressed in Suzuki and Knudtson.

Among indigenous peoples the idea of the natural world as a holistic interdependent system is often expressed as the kinship of all living things: the idea that humans are related to all natural life with the intimacy of family members. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva takes her cues from East Indian tribal peoples when she calls for the ecological goal of “a democracy of all life”.

Our readings illustrate the intimate nature of indigenous relationships with the natural world—and the human responsibility that flows from this.  This is the source of the grief felt by the Wintu woman at the destruction of her natural environment.  For her, such destruction was comparable to the loss of members of her own family. Among indigenous peoples, responsibility for the natural world flows from this sense of intimacy with it.  In her essay “Responsibility among the Lakota” (in Freedom and Culture), philosopher Dorothy Lee details the way in which the Sioux taught traditional responsibility to their children through their emphasis on the relationship of all things.

Related essays for discussion:

[i] The quote is from Bill Moskin’s Lily’s Warrior Angel:  for more on Yeh’s own striking work and links to her website, see

4 Responses

  1. Hi there, I am facilitating adiscussion (1hr 45min) with my community focusing on dualisms, and more specifically, the mind-body dilemma that has confused psychologists, philosophers, and progressive thinkers for some time. When looking over your “Contrasting Worldviews” resource, I noticed that the theme occurs here and there, but particularly within the realm of Sexuality and Gender–wherein the holistic worldview is “body as teacher” and the more dominating worldview is “Mind-Body Split.” I wanted to request your permission to use this paradigm of yours within the discussion, as well as to see how you would elaborate on this. For the most part, my discussion will delve into the known and the unknown, what are the properties of a mind, what are the properties of a body, make the argument that there is no such thing as “living vs. nonliving things,” and that because one being has a spirit, who are we to say that all other things do not?! It should be interesting, and I would more than appreciate a little bit of input or resources from you to help facilitate this. Thanks so much, Madronna! –JA

    • Great to hear from you, John. This is certainly an important topic– I am happy to hear that you are applying this to community discussion. You of course have my permission to use this material in this context. Since you asked for more elaboration, I am also emailing you a copy of an essay on “re-embodiment” that I have forthcoming in an edited collection.
      All best wishes to you for 2013.

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