Theory critique: Representation and reality

This is the last of a series of theoretical critiques I will do based on entries in the volume, Companion to Environmental Studies (Castree et. al. 2018). The entry on Representation and Reality (section 7.18) was written by Zoë Sofoulis. 

Image: Medicine Buddha mandala. Via friends at Pure Land Farms, Sorig Khang International.


This entry deals in a longstanding scholarly conversation regarding reality and knowledge/truth claims to it, most iconically referred to as realism vs. relativism/constructivism.

Above all, Sofoulis’s sections are incredibly confusing. She organizes her critique with the following subtitles:

  • representation versus reality
  • representation of reality
    • scientific representations of reality
  • representation as reality
  • reality as representation
  • non-representational theories and methods

The content within these categories comes across as unclear, and inconsistent with my understanding of realist vs. constructivist positions. Thus, the categories she offers would be potentially useful in differentiating positions, but my impression is that within each of these categories Sofoulis does not stick to the review of that position, but is already weaving (and therefore confusing me as a reader) those positions in relation to their others.

For example, “representation versus reality” has me expecting to understand the broadly relativist position: that representations of reality and reality itself are wholly distinct categories; that is, a relativistic theoretical position on knowledge is that knowledge is segregate from reality, that knowledge is not of reality, that the representation is a creation in itself.

Or, perhaps, the wording of “representation versus reality” has me expecting to get a broad overview of the debate on theories of knowledge/representation.

But, neither of these possibilities is what comes through in this section, which is, altogether, three sentences: “Representation is opposed to an ideal reality in the philosopher Plato’s influential metaphor of the cave, where what initiates took for reality was revealed as a mere shadow play of forms. To early modern scientists, Nature was a book that scientists read to reveal God’s laws of creation. The current ideal is of universal integrated knowledge into which each bit of scientific knowledge slots like a jigsaw piece” (Sofoulis in Castree et al. 2018: 819).

The first sentence uses Plato’s metaphor to suggest representation versus reality. But then the latter two sentences give me what I read as the realist position: that theories of knowledge are intimately held within realities, that reality is directly accessible and knowable, and therefore there is no “versus” to representation and reality.

In making sense of Sofoulis’s entry once again in its entirety, I see that some of the confusion might arise because it is attempting to work within two different theoretical discourses at once: one is semiotics (broadly, theory of representation) and the other is the realism vs. relativism debate, which taken in the context of environmental studies can offer us a way of understanding how the position we take on knowledge has repercussions for our enactment of environmental ideas.

That is, if I trust given scientific facts as constituting the truth of a real category of environment, I fail to allow that that ‘environment’ is a semiotically representative/constructed category not accepted by others; this would leave me little room to believe in engaging with others who experience different realities, and construct ‘environment’ a little bit differently, as possessing full realities and truths, but instead as having a lesser-than set of truths. This may leave me proselytizing my environmental truths as the only ones, taking on a deficit model of communication.

Such an entry matters deeply to gaining humility in our environmental ideas, and Sofoulis’s entry unfortunately fails to help me find my way through this rich theoretical terrain.

Application to framework

Some of my later thoughts in the above critique are directly relevant to my framework. I am beginning to understand my project as highly theoretical, that is, interested in supporting how we (interested environmental studies students) learn to admit and then navigate a plural public sphere with care. I am, in fancy words, hoping to work on a grounded normative ethics.

To that end, one excerpt in Sofoulis’s review of Donna Haraway’s situated knowledges (within subsection scientific representations of reality) inspired me greatly—I see that I want to work on the problem of epistemological pluralism in conversation with environmental ethics (broadly a form of concern for human+nonhuman wellbeing).

Sofoulis writes: “In Haraway’s (1988) updated model of scientific objectivity, the disengaged god-like stance is replaced by a more humble and realistic ‘situated knowledge’, where the knower acknowledges instead of denying the limits and biases of their own standpoint. Whereas positivism recognises just one valid methodology (science), situated knowledges support epistemological pluralism and recognise that every body of knowledge illuminates some aspects of the world while making others harder to see. ‘Truth’ about a phenomenon here is not captured in a unified explanatory field but understood from multiple perspectives and modalities.”

How do we (concerned environmental studies students) come to see other worlds/other truths that offer equally valid treatment of reality, not just as representations/perspectives to be acknowledged, but as contradictions within reality itself available to us in conversation, when we allow ourselves to listen.


Sofoulis, Zoë. “Representation and reality.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 819–22. London ; New York: Routledge, 2018.