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Zev Trachtenberg

College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy, The University of Oklahoma website wordmark
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Zev Trachtenberg

Zev Trachtenberg


Ph.D., Columbia
Research areas: Social and Political Philosophy, Environmental Political Theory, Rousseau

Phone: (405) 325-6811

My current research effort is to explore implications of an emerging understanding of the extent to which the physical environment in which human beings live has been shaped by human activity.

In recent years, across a range of academic disciplines, researchers have paid increasing attention to the ways humanity reshapes its surroundings, and, correlatively, how nature bears the traces of human action. Natural scientists, social scientists and scholars in the humanities have investigated these phenomena—typically recognizing the necessity for interdisciplinary collaboration. I hope to contribute to this effort by exploring the idea that, each in its own way, these disciplines are working toward a single result: an understanding of the integrated whole produced by human agency operating on its environment. I hope that philosophical ideas can aide a robustly interdisciplinary effort to articulate a fitting conception of this whole—not simply nature or culture, but the dynamic system constituted by their complex interactions over time.

Further, I believe that a well-articulated conception, firmly grounded in a wide range of scientific enquiries, can set a productive agenda for normative thinking about the human place in the environment. The need for clear and persuasive normative guidance on this question is acute. On the one hand, environmental ethics, in rejecting the idea that human beings have “dominion” over nature, has in effect assigned them the status of spectators who may properly look at but not make use of their environment, which ideally should remain as untouched as can be. But if nature is best understood as genuinely not distinct from human agency, if the landscapes humans occupy are understood to be shaped by their occupation, then the ethical norms that guide human action must take full account of that understanding. I hope to add to a coherent normative framework that directly addresses the recognition that humanity and nature are, even at a conceptual level, inextricably intertwined.

I was led to my outlook largely through my longstanding work on Rousseau. My Ph.D. dissertation explored Rousseau’s view of the role of culture in the political life of society; it was published as Making Citizens: Rousseau‘s Political Theory of Culture, and I have continued to publish on a variety of topics related to his writings.  In reading Rousseau with environmental issues in mind, I noticed that he provides an account of the human transformation of the landscape; this recognition helped motivate my research into the ways various disciplines investigate the relationship between human beings and their environment. In addition to providing a useful conceptual model of that relationship, Rousseau remains a primary focus of my research because his work articulates some of the complex and conflicting attitudes towards nature that remain powerful in our own time: from the idea that nature provides a kind of refuge into which people can escape the alienation induced by life in society, to the view that nature is there to be used by human beings to support the proper political life of the state.

Recent Courses

  • PHIL 1263 Introduction to Ethics in Health Care
  • PHIL 3353 American Philosophy
  • PHIL 3713 History of Social and Political Philosophy
  • PHIL 3733 Religion in Political Theory
  • PHIL 4713/5713 Survey of Social and Political Philosophy
  • PHIL 6203 Seminar in Ethics: Moral Judgment
  • PHIL 6793 Seminar in Social and Political Philosophy: Religion in Political Theory

Selected Publications

  • Swimming Upstream: Collaborative Approaches to Watershed Management, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.  Co-edited with Paul Sabatier, William Focht, Mark Lubell, Arnold Vedlitz, and Marty Matlock.   Primary author, with William Focht, of chapter: 'Legitimacy and Watershed Collaborations: The Role of Public Participation.'
  • Making Citizens: Rousseau‘s Political Theory of Culture,  London: Routledge, 1993. 
  • 'Complex Green Citizenship and the Necessity of Judgment,' Environmental Politics vol. 19, no. 3 (2010), pp. 339-355.
  • 'Civic Fanaticism and the Dynamics of Pity,' in Rousseau and l’Infame, ed. John Scott and Ourida Mostefai, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009.
  • 'The Exile and the Moss-trooper: Rousseau and Thoreau on Walking in 
    Nature,' SVEC 2008:03, The Nature of Rousseau’s 'Rêveries,' (2008), pp. 209-222.
  • 'Generality, Efficiency, and Neutrality: Must Laws Be General to Be Legitimate?', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 82, no. 1 (2001), pp. 26-50.

Works in Progress

I am currently working on a study of Rousseau’s account of the human transformation of the natural landscape, examining the implications it has for his political theory. The main ideas of my view are summarized in ‘Rousseau’s Green Republicanism’ to be included in a volume on Rousseau’s Republicanism, ed. Christopher Bertram.

I am contributing to an effort to re-read the canon of standard works in political theory, to see how they might inform our understanding of environmental themes; I have written ‘“This habitable earth of ours:” Locke on humanity in the environment,’ a chapter in a volume provisionally titled Greening the Canon, ed. Peter Cannavo and Joseph Lane.