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"Sensibilities": An Essay by Nancy Tuana (Keywords: Affect; Anthropocentrism; Planet; Relationality)


We find ourselves in the midst of growing dangers from anthropogenic climate change. Droughts and floods. Fires and storm surges. Food shortages and heat-related illnesses. The response? At best, we are told: “Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too” (The Economist, 2011). At worst…denial. The science is clear. The impacts are more dramatic with each passing year. And yet, even those who do not doubt the science live in denial. We drive our cars rather than taking the bus. We eat food that is transported over great distances. The problem with trying to “think” our way out of such a problem is that our very ways of conceptualizing it and living within it are part of the very problem we hope to solve. Truth will not set us free. What we need is a shift of such a magnitude that the very sensibilities that give rise to our current ways of living begin to transform.

Sensibilities are the liminal happenings in-between feeling and knowing, sensing and thinking, affect and cognition.

Ways of knowing, of conceptualizing truth, of determining what counts as reasonable emerge from sensibilities. Sensibilities are not individual but compose social formations and ways of living. They give rise not just to individual predispositions and habits, but to cultural attunements, institutional inclinations, social movements, shared mores. Sensibilities are already formed and actively in place when we begin to think, recognize, evaluate. They are active preconditions for knowing; but they are also active preconditions for desiring, experiencing, responding, and feeling. I use the term “sensibility” rather than “episteme” or “worldview” in order to trouble any inclination to privilege cognition over affect, indeed any disposition to see them as separate or separable. Sensibilities give rise to predispositions, and those predispositions concern what we value as much as what we can make sense of; they give rise to our affect as well as to our intellect. Sensibilities are the liminal happenings in-between feeling and knowing, sensing and thinking, affect and cognition. Bodily comportments, institutional arrangements, normative behaviours, forms of desire, affective responses such as guilt, attraction, hate, or fear arise from them. They are already dynamically formed and actively in place when we “come to our senses,” so to speak – when we begin to speak, recognize, or evaluate.

Sensibilities are thus largely pre-reflective, and inherently relational and dynamic; they incorporate practices and influences from diversified histories, lineages, and interests. We may to some extent become reflectively aware of them, but as we are always within their affects and as our awareness arises from them, such attunements are difficult and often incomplete.

It is at the site of sensibilities that we must linger if we desire to transform destructive ways of living. Whether our attention is focused on systemic oppression of some groups of people, or the destruction of ecosystems, or the ways in which the two are co-constituted, attempting to resolve a problem from within a sensibility that constitutes the very problem we hope to address is futile. What is needed is a shift in sensibilities. A shift not just in conceptualization, but in being affected.

We cannot, however, simply discard a sensibility. Rather, we must stay with the moments of tension we find within that sensibility, perhaps even paradoxical tensions that hold within them the promise – not a guarantee – but a promise of transformation. Anthopogenic climate change and the view that we now inhabit a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans have become a geological force provide one such paradoxical tension, what Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently referred to as “the doubled figure of the human.” Alongside the anthropocentric image of humans as separate from the environment and, at best, caring for the nonhuman world, there is a second figure, that of the human as a geologic agent who cannot be understood through purely human-centred conceptions. Within paradoxical tensions such as this where we both embrace a separation of humans from the rest of the world and begin to recognize our inherent and intricate interfusions with biological and geological systems, we find a resource – one I call anthropocenean sensibilities. If we remain with the moments of tension provided by this new attunement, perhaps the power of certain aspects of our current sensibilities might begin to weaken and mutate, to unravel and create cracks and fissures that permit openings to new ways of living. But this is a paradoxical, indeed even dangerous resource, for if anthropocenean sensibilities miscarry, they can serve to reinforce prevailing sensibilities. We might, for instance, try to “undouble” the figure of the human and “resolve” the tension by seeing our impacts on Earth systems as simply another example of human superiority and difference from the rest of nature. Staying with the paradox, animating it rather than trying to resolve it, may open possibilities for living otherwise.


Anthropocenean sensibilities attune us to the site of one of the key components of Western sensibilities, anthropocentrism. Anthropocentric (adj.): “regarding man as the central fact of creation” (1855). It is the locus of many divides, the most dominant of which is that between nature and culture figured such that only humans occupy the more privileged position of being somehow above or beyond nature. This privileging of culture over nature carries with it another key divide, one concerning moral worth. Within this sensibility, humans occupy the only position of intrinsic worth. All else – trees and oceans, mammals and fungi, ecosystems and microbiomes – have, at best, instrumental value. Value for how it can be used by anthropos. This is what Val Plumwood referred to as “hyperseparation”: a divide in which humans are set apart from the rest of nature through a structure of dominance in which humans are valued and nature is relegated to an inferior position. Our current climate and ecological crisis rests on this mode of inhabiting the world. It is a sensibility of domination that produces a way of relating that, as the anthropologist Ghassan Hage phrases it, “initiates a mode of being where otherness is always an otherness that is instrumentalized and perceived to exist ‘for me’”. This is a sensibility in which nature is treated as a resource. We mine it to satisfy our needs whether those needs be material or aesthetic – from the acres upon acres of Roundup Ready cornfields to condos and luxury houses fencing in coastlines.

Anthropocenean sensibilities encourage us to attend to the meaning of the term “anthropos,” enabling us to see yet another aspect of anthropocentrism. The Greek word, anthrōpos, can be used for individuals or as a generic term. It has often been translated as man or men, or mankind or humankind. Like the term mankind, anthropos has a masculine sense – it harbours an exclusion even in the midst of inclusion. We see the false imposition of inclusion in the concept of the Anthropocene. In what has been taken to be the branding moment of the term, Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer delineate the impacts of the massive expansion of “mankind, both in numbers and per capita exploitation of Earth’s resources” and conclude that given the magnitude of “human activities on earth and atmosphere…it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘Anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch.” But as critic after critic has made clear, it isn’t “mankind” or even “humankind” that has contributed to this exploitation, but rather the groups responsible for this so-called “great acceleration” are typically those differentiated by power and wealth, as well as by race and gender.

If we linger at the claim that humans have become a “geological force,” and do so with an attentiveness to the false inclusion of the claim that humans as a whole have contributed to the “great acceleration,” we begin to appreciate yet another tension at the heart of the hyperseparation between humans and nature. We begin to understand that this hyperseparation has been seen as applying only to some groups of humans, those who are “civilized” and have evolved away from the so-called “state of nature.” In this now more blurred division between humans and animals – civilized versus primitive, savage, animal-like – rests the justification for the exploitation of some groups of humans that has gone hand-in-hand with the exploitation of Earth’s resources. The hands that have and continue to dig the coal mines, harvest monocrops, or raze forests are often those relegated to unfree or less free labour due to social injustices arising from lineages of the treatment of some groups of people as less than fully human.

Anthropocenean sensibilities that linger at the site of the tension between the insistence of a hyperseparation between humans and nature, and the equally insistent blurring for some groups reveal the myriad practices and historical lineages – transatlantic slavery, genocide and land appropriation – that bind environmental degradation and the systemic exploitation of some groups of people. Such attunements can help us understand and perhaps begin to undo the long histories and complex lineages of the co-constitution of systematic racisms and environmental exploitation.


Staying with the paradoxical tensions of anthropos can animate yet another attunement, one that goes beyond any effort to critique the sensibilities that have given rise to our current climate and environmental disasters. We might begin to appreciate that despite the dominance of a sensibility that hyperseparates humans and nature, it is far from being universal. What is meant by “human,” and the ways that differences between humans and the more-than-human world are understood, are not the same in all cultures. As philosopher Brian Burkhart has recently highlighted in Indigenizing Philosophy through the Land, Lakota sensibilities include the concept of Mitakuye Oyasin (everything is related) as a reminder of one’s “kinship with and moral connectedness to the birds, the trees, the rocks, the buffalo, the people, and through this kind of multiplicity to everything there is.” For the Lakota, humans are not separated or separable from nature, as the air, the plants and animals, the stones and mountains, the water are part of what humans are in their intertwining.

Despite the dominance of a sensibility that hyperseparates humans and nature, it is far from being universal.

Marisol de la Cadena’s conception of what she calls the “anthropo-not-seen” is an excellent heuristic for animating the paradox of anthropocenean sensibilities. She instructs us to consider the sensibilities of the Awajún and the Wampis, two related indigenous groups in the country currently known as Peru, who do not embrace a sensibility of hyperseparation. In her essay “Uncommoning Nature,” de la Cadena argues that the “anthropo-not-seen” is a “world-making process through which heterogeneous worlds that do not make themselves through the division between humans and nonhumans – nor do they necessarily conceive the different entities in their assemblages through such a division – are both obliged into that distinction and exceed it.” In other words, while living within a world that hyperseparates and imposes that conceptualization upon them through, for example, the imposition of legal disputes about land rights, the Awajún and Wampis peoples at the same time live in a world in which such hyperseparation makes no sense. The anthropo-not-seen thus attunes us to other sensibilities that happen within and despite hyperseparation. With such heightened attunements to doublings and paradoxes, we can begin to appreciate the many alternative lineages woven within dominant sensibilities, other lineages that trouble the ground of hyperseparation and might provide a path to ways of living that do not rest on structures of domination.

We find in Melanie L. Harris’ Ecowomanism yet another example of lineages and ways of living that blur the division between humans and nonhumans, ones that are both within and yet beyond dominant sensibilities. Harris turns to the deep lineages and experiences of African and African American women as including cosmological lineages that can form lifeways that exceed dominant sensibilities and offer an alternative “way of being in community with all others in the earth community.”

Ways of living grounded on relationality rather than separation offer paths for transformation in which we become attentive to what I refer to as the viscous porosity of things, to the inherent and fluid interconnections and co-emergence of what is. Anthropocenean sensibilities attune us to viscous porosity, to the imporings between people and places – sea level rise and globalization, corporate farming and environmental degradation, urban sprawl and water pollution. Such attunements sensitize us to an ethos of interrelationality in which we apprehend and are affected by the deep interconnectivity of things – interconnections between the past and the future, the local and the global, lifeways and climates, environmental degradation and systematic oppressions. This affective orientation, the ability to be affected by and respond to the interrelations that constitute us and all that is, is a path to new sensibilities. It is a porous, vulnerable, changeable path that affords impulses attuned to living-together. An affirmative impulse toward new futurities, new possibilities of together-living.

Nancy Tuana is DuPont/Class of 1949 Professor of Philosophy and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her book Racial Climates, Ecological Indifference: An Ecointersectional Approach is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet"). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue, or become a subscriber.


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