The Beginning and End of Nature

When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.
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The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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Learning to Swim with Deleuze

The movement of the swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs.  That is why it is so difficult to say how someone learns: there is an innate or acquired practical familiarity with signs, which means that there is something amorous—but also something fatal—about all education.  […]

When a body combines some of its own distinctive points with those of a wave, it espouses the principle of a repetition which is no longer that of the Same, but involves the Other—involves difference, from one wave and one gesture to another, and carries that difference through the repetitive space thereby constituted.  To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself. […]

To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the objective Idea in order to form a problematic field.  This conjugation determines for us a threshold of consciousness at which our real acts are adjusted to our perceptions of the real relations, thereby providing a solution to the problem.  Moreover, problematic Ideas are precisely the ultimate elements of nature and the subliminal objects of little perceptions.  As a result, ‘learning’ always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind.

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and repetition, trans. Paul Patton. (Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 23, 165.

(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 1: Nature and Things

Aristotle is underrated.  He is not some dry systematic thinker who abstracted and oversimplified the insights of his teacher.  Plato and Aristotle are too often reduced to straw men who are guilty of establishing the structures (especially dualisms) that have caused most of the world’s subsequent problems.  Some people rescue Plato by reminding everyone of the complexities inherent in his use of dialogues, but it’s been harder to rescue Aristotle, due in part to a long history of Latinate translations (substance, actuality) that have made it hard for some of us to appreciate humor and passion for truth.  The translations of Aristotle by Joe Sachs are a breath of fresh air.  Sachs makes it easier to see that Aristotle is not the dualistic straw man that many make him out to be.  Aristotle is much weirder than that.  In fact, his attention to individual things makes him a forerunner of Whitehead’s ontological principle, Latour’s actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology.  Paraphrasing Heidegger, if you want to understand contemporary philosophy, you should study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.  Using Sachs’ translations, let’s just look at the basics.

Aristotle’s investigation into nature (phusis) can be approached through the definition of nature offered at in the second book of the Physics.  “Nature is a certain source and cause of being moved and of coming to rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not incidentally” (192b20).  An investigation into nature, then, is an investigation into the sources and causes of motion and ultimately into being as such (Metaphysics 1003a22).  Whatever has a source of motion inherent in itself is said to have a nature.  Furthermore, whatever has this inherent power to move and change must persist and endure through the change of which it has the power.  The cosmos remains a whole while its elements move and change (1040b9).  The human being remains a human being while it becomes educated. The plant remains a plant while its parts change and grow.

Whatever has a nature, then, has being as an independent thing—thinghood (ousia), which is characterized by material (hule) stretching toward a form (morphe) (Physics, 192a 20).  An independent thing as an active whole is said to be an underlying thing (hupokeimenon).  A body is an underlying thing if it endures through the change of attributes.  The underlying thing is always some material moving toward form.  Moreover, deprivation of form is still form.  Material is always swinging from form to form.

When investigating the nature of things, Aristotle examines the hypotheses of his predecessors.  His definition of nature as a source of motion responds to the denial of motion by some philosophers, e.g. Parmenides (184b18).  The natural way of an independent thing is sometimes identified with the unarranged material of the thing.  The philosophers that hypothesized elements or atoms as the nature of things, e.g. Thales and Democritus, supposed that it was these elements or atoms that were the primary causes of things.  Indeed, unarranged material is part of a thing and does affect its movement causally.  However, the thinghood of a thing is also determined by its form, which is the look that is disclosed in speech (eidos) (193a30).

An investigation into nature must account for the material together with the form of independent things.    Aristotle argues that the form of a thing is more indicative of its nature than the material (193b9).  A thing is more itself when its form is being-at-work (energeia) than when its material is only potentially formed according to what has been disclosed in speech.  Some of Aristotle’s predecessors identified the nature of a thing with its form, e.g. Pythagoreans and Platonists (Metaphysics, 985b-87b).  They investigate the form of natural bodies as separate and motionless.  Those who investigate merely the form or material of a thing (or the separated form and material) do not grasp its nature as a moving, changing, independent thing.  Aristotle investigates the form of natural bodies as they appear with their moving material.  The form of a natural body is always the form being-at-work with some moving material.

Let’s summarize what we know of Aristotle’s conception of natural bodies before we continue.  Something has a nature if it is a source and cause of motion and change in itself.  Thus, a natural body has the being of an independent thing (ousia), thinghood.  The cause of motion in a natural body is its underlying material, which is forming itself to its look disclosed in speech, moving from the potency (dunamis) of form to the being-at-work (energeia) of form. To get a clearer and more complete understanding of the cause of motion in natural bodies, let us further explicate the relationship between form and being-at-work.

Aristotle argued that the form of a thing is more its nature than the underlying material, for the underlying material moves according to its look disclosed in speech.  Furthermore, material is said to be what it is when it is being-at-work in its form, not when it is merely potentially in form.  Thus, form is that which a thing keeps being in order for the thing to be at all.  What a thing keeps being in order to be at all (to ti en einai) is often called its essence.  Form, as was said earlier, is the being-at-work of material.  Form is the being-at-work that a thing keeps on being in order to be at all.

Aristotle coins a term to describe this self-maintaining being-at-work by combining a word that means “complete” (enteles) with one that means “to be a certain way” (echein).  In Joe Sachs’ translation, the resulting word means “being-at-work-staying-itself” (entelecheia), which is sometimes translated poorly as the Latinate “actuality.”  Moreover, entelecheia puns on a word that means persistence (endelecheia) by adding a word that means finality or completion (telos).  The completion of a thing is that for the sake of which it works.  For a natural body, the form is its telos, and the being-at-work of form is being-at-work-staying-itself.  Sachs also translates entelecheia as “holding together actively as a whole” (On the Soul, 412b9).  My favorite translation is Ralph Manheim’s translation of Heidegger’s translation of entelecheia: “the holding (preserving)-itself-in-the-ending (limit)” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics [Yale, 1959], p. 60).

We have discussed three different ways of causing or being responsible for a natural thing: the material of a thing, the form to which it has potential to stretch, and the final state of being-at-work-staying-itself as a complete, independent thing.   Aristotle also discusses another cause of a thing, which is the original impetus for the movement of material toward form, sometimes called the efficient cause.  The efficient cause of a natural body is what allows the other causes to come together.  In this manner, the father causes a child (Physics, 194b30).  Aristotle argues that the first cause—formal, telic, and efficient—of all motion and being is the being-at-work-staying-itself of intellect (nous), which exists co-eternally with potent material (Metaphysics, 1072b 20).

Before I say more about the role of contemplative intellect in causing the movement and being of natural bodies, I want to examine Aristotle’s conception of life, which will lead us to a discussion of the soul and intellect.  That will have to wait for later.

Post-Wild, Rambunctious Ecology

Invasive species aren’t always bad.  Biodiversity isn’t always good.  There is no such thing as “pristine” nature.  Organic gardening isn’t always the best use of land.  Those are some of the points raised in the recent book by Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury, 2011). 

Marris is a science writer.  In Rambunctious Garden, she engages some of the most controversial and current topics of conservation biology and ecology, and she does so with a very accessible style, including various accounts of experiences in the field, conversations with scientists and advocates, and histories of human impacts on species and ecosystems.  

One of the things I like most about this book is the optimism.  Marris is excited about the future, even if it’s an “eco-industrial vision” of the future (134).   She doesn’t deny the severity of environmental challenges like climate change, species extinction, and development, yet her approach is “proactive and optimistic” (3).  There are truly amazing possibilities for the future of human-Earth relations.  They aren’t neat and tidy, but messy and rambunctious. 

With joy and wit, Marris reports that there is no stable “nature” or untouched wilderness.  “Ecosystems are fundamentally stable entities afflicted by changes from without and within about as much as a ballet is a fundamentally static object afflicted with motion” (34).  “If one rusty beer can spoils a whole day’s search for the beauty in nature, then there isn’t much beauty left.  But I think there is, if we just adjust our perception” (169). 

If there is no pristine or stable nature, there is no sense in conservationists trying to restore ecosystems to pre-colonial baselines (i.e., what the ecosystems looked like before white people arrived).  Such baselines are arbitrary, since the nature to which they return is itself already altered by humans.  Returning an ecosystem to a pre-human baseline (e.g., tens of thousands of years ago) is an equally arbitrary goal, both because one can’t ascertain the exact conditions of pre-human ecosystems and because some conditions simply can’t be restored (the climate is already changed).  There is no simple origin to which ecosystems can be returned.  Conservation/restoration has to be done without baselines. 

Marris is excited about the possibilities found in restoration efforts that are embracing novel ecosystems instead of viewing a novel ecosystem as a mere degeneration of an intact ecosystem.  She also supports the creation of “designer ecosystems,” which are novel ecosystems that would be engineered for specific goals, ranging from carbon sequestration, nitrogen reduction, and the maintenance of a species to the maintenance of aesthetic and cultural values and even existence values (the value of existing without any purpose, sometimes categorized among “passive use values”) (166).  Along these lines, Marris hopes many ecologists and environmentalists will cease being “trapped by the seductive vision of healing wounded nature and returning it to a stable ‘natural’ state” (126).

In a nutshell, give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development, and try just about everything.  (170)

We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate.  It is our duty to manage it.  Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit.  Let the rambunctious gardening begin. (171)

Overall, the book is provocative and well-researched.  My main criticism of this book is that Marris doesn’t consistently apply her insight that there is no pristine nature.  She generally does an excellent job of countering or defusing the usual dualism between human-dominated ecosystems and intact ecosystems, but occasionally she just reverses the dualism. 

For instance, she proposes that humans should see nature as “the living background” to our lives (151).  Background?  She is trying to invoke a “gestalt switch”: in contrast to most wilderness maps and protected-areas maps, which show “shrinking islands of nature” in the foreground against the background of human-dominated lands, Marris proposes that we focus on human-dominated lands “as the foreground and everything else as the background nature” (135). 

I like the shift from pristine nature to human-nature hybrids, but doesn’t that shift ultimately mean that the shrinking islands of nature are already altered by humans (at least abiotically, e.g., climate change), such that there is no clear demarcation between foreground and background?  To put it in gestalt terms, nature as multistable seems like a more appropriate metaphor than nature as background.  In any case, Rambunctious Garden is definitely worth reading, and furthermore, it’s worth reading slowly, giving oneself time to imagine, to wonder, and to contemplate the numerous case studies, histories, and debates that she presents.