Individuation In Ecological Debate

Metonymic Cuties: The linguistics of individuation in ecological debate

Small UOW proposal submitted 11/9/2009: Metonymic Cuties Small Proposal.

The project will identify linguistic and discourse patterns (in … specify types of discourse) that promote an unreflective conflation of the concepts of species and individual in non-human animals, which in turn promotes an unproductive slippage between concern for the interests of species and those of individual members of species. (can’t think how to capture this idea properly right now - Alison suggests ‘slippage’ is a bit too pomo but it will have to do for the moment)

(types of discourse may include e.g. public discourse such as printed press and radio and tv journalism; private discourse including mother-child and teacher-student discourse etc. tbc)

On aspect of this topic will be the grammatical potential in English for ambiguity about whether one is referring to an individual or a group (race/ species etc) that appears to be a semantic feature of certain combinations of selections of person, number and process type in English.


  1. the magpie is using the stick to get a worm out of the ground — clear reference
  2. the magpie is a clever bird — ambiguous reference — could be the same individual as referred to before, or it could refer to the species of magpie. Of course in fact this is a made up example and what would be more likely to happen if ‘person particulatisation’ were at play is that there would be some cohesive choice, e.g. using a demonstrative (e.g. that magpie is a clever bird!) that disambiguates.

The same thing also occurs with race etc of course

The aboriginal ….

Your black man…

So yes the confusion is about what the noun phrase (or, better, nominal group) is representing, a better account will be a semantic one which identifies the ambiguity as occurring around the ‘central entity’ (Hasan/ Cloran) or similar, and which represents the source of the confusion as the ambiguity around the presence or absence of semantic features such as ‘person particularisation’ (Hasan) , and around the direction of the ‘semantic drift’ (Butt) or the resulting ‘ensemble effects’ (Butt) of a suite of grammatical features. In the above example the obvious culprits (so far) are proc type, person and number, as can be seen from the fact that the ambiguity occurs only in the relational clause but not in the material clause. This makes some sense because a species does not engage in specific material events in the continuous present tense, unless metaphorically [hm — not sure that’s true in ecological discourse: “The cane toad is extending its reach down into New South Wales” isn’t particularly metaphorical, is it?], but a species can and does get attributes ascribed to it.

Do we care about non-animal species, especially plants? Probably not much, because there’s less of an ethical issue (IMO none at all) about individual plants.

Why this matters: (“We hypothesise that …” ha ha) Ecological debate often uses species terms in a way that suggests that it’s doing good thing for the members of the species in question, when in fact it is often extremely harmful to those animals (qua individuals). A large part of the project would be finding great case studies of this (shouldn’t be hard). Also examples from thinkers more generally: there’s a good example in a paper by Hasan, which couldn’t be better from the point of view of showing how ingrained this mistake is (Hasan’s a particularly thoughtful person but still makes it).

More abstractly, ecological debate often positions itself as being animal-friendly when it is really only, at best, species-friendly or maybe only biodiversity-friendly.

Linguistic angles: …

Philosophy angles: (a) some bullshit about ontology, mereology etc., and application of that to organisms including difficult cases like slime molds; (b) maybe some philosophy of language; (c) Jason stuff about scientific methodology; (d) political philosophy (need someone to help with this? Mark?). Also Jason, Paul etc. have expertise in using the scientific literature.

CIs Alison and Helen. Some role for me with a biosecurity hat on. Hopefully Paul; maybe Mark.