Man and Nature, Parts I-IV (Complete)

For those who would like to read my series of articles on Man and Nature, here they are, presented as a continuous text.  Also, for a detailed response to the fourth installment of my series on Man and Nature, please visit the Oroborous Self-Sufficient Community.  Its founder, the scientist Allister Cucksey, is a Robert Owens of sorts, and his counter-critique is welcome.

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Man and Nature, Part II: The Marxist Theory of Man’s Alienation from Nature

Still from Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979)

When Marx wrote his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he was likewise concerned with the problem of man’s (specifically, the worker’s) relationship to nature.  It was part of the worker’s fourfold alienation under capitalist modernity: his estrangement from nature, from the products of his labor, from other people, and from himself.  As Marx explained, with respect to nature: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.  It is the material in which his labor realizes itself…”[1] However, as the products of the worker’s labor are expropriated, nature is reduced to a mere means of subsistence.  “In a physical sense man lives only from these natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing, shelter, etc.…Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body.”[2] The natural world is further and further removed from the worker, and arrives then only in a relatively processed, mediated form.  The immediacy of nature has been lost, and nature confronts humanity as an alien, unknown entity.  This alienation is exacerbated by the shared estrangement from nature that the individual sees in other men: “Every self-estrangement of man from himself and nature is manifested in the relationship he sets up between other men and himself and nature.”[3] Or, as the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer would later put it, echoing Marx, “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature is also the history of man’s subjugation by man.”[4]

Clearly, the alienation felt by the Romantics toward nature was a real one, Marx recognized, but he did not see it as the result of some sort of spiritual downfall or fall from grace.  Rather, he understood it to be symptomatic of the rise of a new social formation — namely, capitalism.  That is to say, the alienation from nature that was registered ideologically (in poetry, philosophy, and art) by the Romantics was indicative of a deeper shift in the socioeconomic substructure of their time.

Although humanity’s alienation from nature was clearly a central concern of the young Marx, most of his later work was solely devoted to the analysis of class relations under capitalism and the critique of political economy.  It was thus Engels, rather, who would eventually take up the subject of nature again in his writings.  Not only in his 1883 Dialectics of Nature, a text that remains controversial within the annals of Marxist literature, but even in other works like Anti-Duhring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels discussed the way in which humanity became further estranged from nature even as science began to discover its innermost workings.  For rather than encountering nature in an organic, holistic fashion, natural science was methodologically microscopic, isolating individual phenomena from their original context and observing their operation in abstraction from the whole.  This entailed, as Bacon had already himself admitted, a certain domination of nature.  And this, in turn, implied an equal degree of alienation from nature.  Engels explained the historical unfolding of this process as follows:

The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as a legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.[5]

Although Engels himself repudiated the French materialists and natural philosophers like Bacon and Locke for their “metaphysical” approach to nature, and considered the mechanistic view of the world to have been superseded by dialectical thought, it was the mechanistic worldview that eventually won out in the field of the natural sciences.  It remains down to the present day — for better or for worse — the predominant mode of thought amongst the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology.  This is a large reason why Engels’ later Dialectics of Nature has subsequently been so disparaged by scientists and philosophers, despite the fact that some of its content is both salvageable and valuable to Marxist literature.

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Man and Nature, Part I: The Shifting Historical Conceptions of Nature in Society

Caspar David Friedrich, "Sunset" (1835)

History proves again and again

How Nature points out the folly of man…

— Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla”

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature.  The proper exposition of the problem would require a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into three separate blog entries, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.  After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations.

So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified.  The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format.  It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical, as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history.  For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it.

And so, to begin at the beginning:

At some points, nature was viewed as an adversary to be feared, bringing plague, catastrophe, and famine to ravage mankind.  Often these elemental forces were either animistically, naturalistically, or totemistically embodied as divine powers in themselves,[1] or anthropomorphized as gods who commanded these forces as they saw fit.  When cataclysms occurred, it was because the gods or spirits had somehow been enraged by the misdeeds of men, and thus they unleashed their fury upon the mass of fear-stricken mortals.  In Christian times, this same logic persisted,[2] with periods of plenty seen as signs of God’s providence and grace, while periods of blight were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness and iniquity of men.

Later, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, nature was reenvisioned as dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical but unknown laws, which could be discovered and mastered through careful study and observation under controlled conditions.  As the Baconian dictum went, contra Aristotle: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves better through harassments applied by the arts [torture] than when they go on in their own way.”[3] Thus began the “conquest” of nature, the quest to harness its forces so that they may serve the ends of mankind.  Robbed of their mysterious properties, natural objects therefore became “disenchanted,” in the Weberian sense.[4] With the arrival of the Enlightenment, as Hegel recognized, “the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”[5]

Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss, and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature.  The Romantics exalted the primitive, celebrating the charming naïveté of the ancient Greeks or their modern-day counterparts, who appeared in the form of “noble savages.”  The playwright Friedrich Schiller even dedicated an essay to the distinction between the “naïve”[6] and “sentimental” in poetry.  For modern man, he asserted, “nature has disappeared from our humanity, and we can reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world.  Not our greater naturalness [Naturmäßigkeit], but the very opposite, the unnaturalness [Naturwidrigkeit] of our relationships, conditions, and mores forces us to fashion a satisfaction in the physical world that is not to be hoped for in the moral world.”[7] The Romantics thus preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city.  Vitalistic explanations of nature, like Goethe’s and Schelling’s, were offered as alternatives to the Democritean-Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter and obeying a changeless set of mechanical laws.

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