Man and Nature, Part III: An Excursus into the Structuralist Opposition of Nature and Culture

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The basic distinction between “nature” and “culture” — that fundamental opposition so central to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology[1] — has been denied, deconstructed, and dissolved countless times by post-structuralist scholars and intellectuals.  But in this respect, it is hardly the only binary to have been so challenged — man/woman, inside/outside, and self/other have all similarly come under attack.  The reality of such distinctions, they say, is far less certain, and far more ambiguous, than the structuralists would have us believe.  An absolute division between any of these pairs, they argue, cannot therefore be established.

And there is undeniably something to the blurring of this distinction: after all, is man (historically associated with culture and civilization) not also an animal? Darwin’s theory of evolution proved definitively man’s derivation from more primitive animal species.  It could thus not be denied that man is simply one species amongst many.  Humanity can claim no special status separate from these other species, by dint of some sort of divine creation or other fantasy.  And so also can humanity not maintain any sort of special dominion over all the rest of nature, as suggested by Judeo-Christian mythology.[2] By what right, then, ask the environmentalists, can mankind dominate and exploit the whole of nature? Humans have no special privilege — at an ethical level — over and above any other sentient animals.  It is unethical, therefore, to live at the expense of other sentient beings, or to intrude upon their natural environment.  Would this not constitute a form of speciesism?

But this argument cuts both ways.  For how is it that the actions of this animal, mankind, be considered so wholly unnatural? After all, it might be justifiably pointed out that all biological organisms exploit their environment, to the extent that they can.  Those species that do not adequately exploit their environment or find their way into an environment in which they can, simply go extinct.  So when environmental activists protest the exploitation of nature by human beings, the argument could be made that we are simply doing what all other organisms do.  We just happen to be especially good at it.  Might it not even be human “nature” to ruthlessly exploit and dominate the rest of nature? In the end, human beings are exceptionally gifted in terms of their ability to think systematically, understand the relationship between means and ends, and contrive complex devices to use as tools to manipulate the environment.  It is as if evolution produced an animal capable of conquering nature in its entirety, and that mankind is merely exercising the gifts bestowed on it by nature.

Both these attempts to deny the difference between nature and culture, however, must be admitted to be flawed.  For even if one cannot set up an absolute divide between the two, it is simply a fact of our historical moment that there exists a very real contradiction between nature and human society, or culture.  Humanity stands alienated from the nature from which it emerged, millennia ago.  And though human beings are indeed animals themselves, there is something about them that profoundly distinguishes them from the rest.  Engels explained this eloquently in his Dialectics of Nature:

With men we enter history.  Animals also have a history, that of their derivation and gradual evolution to their present position.  This history, however, is made for them, and in so far as they themselves take part in it, this occurs without their knowledge or desire.  On the other hand, the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word, the more they make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces of this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance.[3]

Humanity is in this respect radically differentiated from the rest of nature, even though it owes its existence to it.  Moreover, the moment mankind entered this history Engels described, human history, marks the beginning of mankind’s long path of estrangement from nature.

Despite his animal origins, the first seeds of self-consciousness and free will were gradually awakened in the mind of man.  The natural instincts that drove him mindlessly toward the satisfaction of this or that primitive desire were gradually suppressed, and sacrificed so that man might cultivate the earth and himself along with it.  This is taught not only by Hegel in his dialectic of the master and the slave,[4] but also by Freud, who saw that the redirection or sublimation of these natural instincts toward conscious ends was a prerequisite for society.  “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud.  “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”[5]

From his earlier enslavement to his natural instincts, man progressed through a series of more refined, but less severe forms of enslavement — from savagery, barbarism, and finally, civilization.[6] But even if one rejects this stagist view of history, it will be generally agreed that the earliest phases of agriculture and the domestication of livestock took place in a time when mankind lived under fairly barbaric conditions.  In these primitive societies there was a great deal of unfreedom: the domestic slavery of women, the subjugation of men to other men, etc.  Nevertheless, through the repression and sublimation of their cruder, more immediate desires, humanity distinguished itself from nature and progressively gained a more conscious mastery over its own ends, even though this freedom was available only to those least bound in their service to other men.

Throughout these more primitive, and even some of the more advanced civilizations, however, nature was never that far away that humanity felt totally estranged from it.  Small urban centers were established, and new comforts of life introduced, but the social and technical limitations of these of the day prevented nature from ever becoming too distanced from society.  And thus the feelings of alienation in man’s relation to nature remained beneath surface, and only rose to the level consciousness with the passage to a radically new social formation, capitalism.  From the moment commodity production began to dominate social relations in Britain and Western Europe, the estrangement of humanity from nature progressed at an ever-increasing pace.  The rapidity with which the humble stone cottage was displaced by towering industrial smokestacks was startling.  The contradiction between town and country was brought into even greater relief with overwhelming urbanization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  As Marx and Engels wrote:

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the town. It has created enormous cities, vastly inflated the urban population as opposed to the rural, and so rescued a significant part of the population from the [rural] idiocy of living on the land.[7]

The contradiction between nature and culture was thus obviated by this historic development — the advent of capitalism, which would grow to eventually swallow the globe.  And here is where we can accept the structuralist opposition, although not in the same way the structuralist would have framed it.  For both linguistic and anthropological structuralism share with dialectical thought (idealist and materialist alike) the tendency to pair polar opposites with one another and seek their resolution through intermediate terms.  One needs only to look to Lévi-Strauss’ seminal essay, “Structure and Dialectics,”[8] to witness its many parallels.

The difference between structuralist dialectics and the historical dialectics of Hegel or Marx is that structuralism is methodologically synchronic, following Saussure’s original formulation.  That is to say, they viewed the structural oppositions with which they dealt as timeless, indissoluble contradictions in language or human nature.  For structural anthropology, the mediation of these opposites through ritual provides only temporary relief for what is actually an eternal struggle between irreconcilable polarities.  Thus, what it can offer are only ahistorical snapshots of various resolutions to what are in essence primordial oppositions that the structuralists believe pertain to every society throughout all of time.

Dialectical materialism, by contrast, is methodologically diachronic.  It views the various contradictions that arise throughout history as fluid relationships, which can either be resolved or exacerbated in any number of ways.  Thus, with the opposition between “nature” and “culture,” the dialectician can understand it as a contradiction that is by no means timeless, but which came into being along with the foundation of the first societies.  The two terms have been in opposition for some time, but have subject to a rapidly accelerating process of alienation and even polarization with the development of capitalism.  One could even say that it is here that for the first time Nature presents itself to humanity as a problem.  Both the sense of lost unity with nature and the prospect of impending environmental collapse weigh like a nightmare on the brain of contemporary humanity.  Humanity begins to realize the extent to which society has already radically reshaped the world, and recognize the potentially disastrous consequences this transformation might have.  Or as Engels puts it,

Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place, and even the plants and animals themselves, that the consequences of his activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe.[9]

Reviewing the course of the discussion to this point, what are the results of this analysis of the nature/culture distinction? First, it shows that humanity cannot be glibly subsumed to nature, as if the activity of mankind is just nature as usual.  Also, it demonstrates that the opposition of nature to culture, of civilization to the wild, is not an eternal and indissoluble contradiction, but rather one that arose historically and can potentially be overcome.  In connection with our previous posts, it furthermore implies that — since the problem of man’s relationship to nature arises only in society and is dependent on the specific society in which it appears — the opposition of nature to culture can only be overcome through radical social transformation.  Finally, it shows that the solution to the problem cannot come in the form of a one-sided embracement of nature over culture, or culture over nature.  But by that same token we must reject attempts that only aim to dull the opposition through the implementation of piecemeal legislation and the regulation of industry.  Nor can we accept as sufficient the idea of changing lifestyle choices, isolated attempts at corporate sabotage or animal “liberation,” and least of all the numerous scenes of theatrical protest and “Go Green!” initiatives.  This analysis forms the groundwork for a searing critique of lifestylism, anarcho-primitivism, and the Green movement in general.  This is what will be pursued in the next entry.

[1] Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  “The Structural Study of Myth.”  From Structural Anthropology.  Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf.  (Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.  New York, NY: 1963).  Pg. 225.

[2] “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”  Genesis 1:26-28.  New King James Version.

[3] Engels, Friedrich.  The Dialectics of Nature.  Translated by Clemens Dutt.  From Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Collected Works, Volume 52.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1987).  Pg. 330.

[4] Through the mutual antagonism of two self-conscious beings, and the mastery of one over the other, “[t]hey [each] put an end to their consciousness in its alien setting of natural existence.”  Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  The Phenomenology of Spirit.  Translated by A.V. Miller.  (Oxford University Press.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 114.

[5] Freud, Sigmund.  Civilization and its Discontents.  From The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.  Translated by James Strachey.  (The Hogarth Press.  London, England: 1986).  Pg. 4,495.

[6] Engels, Friedrich. The Origins of the Family.  Translated by Clemens Dutt.  From Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Collected Works, Volume 26.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1987).

[7] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich.  Manifesto of the Communist Party.  From Later Political Writings.  Translated by Terrell Carver.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1996).  Pg. 5.

[8] Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  “Structure and Dialectics.”  From Structural Anthropology.  Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf.  (Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.  New York, NY: 1963).  Pgs. 232-241.

[9] Engels, Friedrich.  The Dialectics of Nature.  Translated by Clemens Dutt.  From Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Collected Works, Volume 52.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1987).  Pg. 329-330.

4 thoughts on “Man and Nature, Part III: An Excursus into the Structuralist Opposition of Nature and Culture

  1. Pingback: Man and Nature, Part IV: A Radical Critique of the “Green” Environmental Movement « The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Man and Nature, Parts I-IV (Complete) « The Charnel-House

  3. Hello Ross, I apologize for my major delay in responding to your comment in 2011 at This blog was used in an envir. ethics class and i have not kept it up. However, my online writing is ongoing on my Oikonomia blog (Greek, e.g. as “stewardship of a household”). There, I have addressed the human species and our relationship & responsibilitiy to the rest of “creation.” If I were to invite you to read ONE entry for a start, I would suggest “Keepers of the Earth and of Our Neighbor” located at You will quickly see that our worldviews are quite different, mine based on human reason informed and inspired by divine revelation of the Bible (including Genesis which you kindly acknowledged above). Respectfully, I do not know how one can posit an objective philosophy or ethic without grounding human reason to an objective moral code. For example, we might both agree that a universal or near universal ethic can be erected upon “the Golden Rule” (akin to the second of the two “Great Commandments” offered by Jesus Christ (Gospel of Matthew 22: 35-40), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This command/rule, if followed by the unique, human species (according to Genesis) who was appointed to be steward (one who SERVES, not OWNS creation), the degradation of Earth as we know it wouldn’t have occurred. I believe the Judeo-Christian environmental ethic can overcome the objectionable elements of anthropocentrism IF “servant/dominion” is understood and applied; namely, that humans are unique and appointed kings of creation, but kings who understand that they serve at the behest of the Great King, God the Creator and Owner. Any departure from this understanding of where the real kingship comes from, and Who is in charge, results in distortions that result in totalitarian terrors of history, or deaths by the millions under communist regimes. The former ignores the danger of power in the hands of a few corrupt humans (with sin nature) while the latter does the same (e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot account for the deaths of millions) but also fails to offer an objective basis for allowing humans to express creativity and entrepreneurship while avoiding the corruption associated with a naturalistic/materialistic/evolution worldview.

    These are some general thoughts. I welcome your response, and again, thanks for your interest. Respectfully, John Silvius

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