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Nature, Philosophical Ideas of


In its widest sense "nature" can mean "the totality of things," all that would have to appear in an inventory of the universe. It can also refer to the laws and principles of structure by which the behavior of things may be explained. These two senses cannot be kept independent of each other at any sophisticated level of inquiry, for to state in any of the sciences what an entity is involves describing what it does, its patterns of activity or behavior, and the activity of its constituent elements, as far as they can be known and subsumed under laws.

In a particular philosophical context the sense in which nature is being used can be brought out most clearly by insisting upon the question "What is nature (or the natural) being contrasted with in this context?" In one group of cases the natural is contrasted with the artificial or conventional. This contrast requires some conception of how the object or organism would behave by reason of its immanent causality alone, the causal factors that are peculiar to that type of thing and make it whatever it isa stone, a fish, or a man. The artificial and conventional are seen as interferences, modifying by an alien causality the characteristic patterns of behavior. In the sphere of human nature this distinction is at the center of an ancient and continuing controversy, for it is by no means easyif, indeed, possibleto delineate a human nature free of interferences, left to itself. Organism and environment, individual and cultural climate, are in ceaseless interplay. An activity (like moral evaluation or social organization) that seems to some theorists on the "convention side" of the boundary may be represented by others, with no less reason, as a development of natural potentialities. The controversy is further complicated by the intrusion of evaluative nuances in the distinction itself, so that the natural, for instance, may come to be more highly esteemed than the artificial and conventional, as the spontaneous or the basic is contrasted with the labored and derivative. The preference may be reversed, however; the natural can be taken as the mere raw material, the unfinished and preparatory, requiring artifice to complete and crown it.

In some contexts man is contrasted with nature; in others he is taken as part of nature. The difference is not trivially linguistic. To set man against nature is to emphasize his distinctivenesshis rationality, creativity, and freedom. But it may also support an unwarranted and distorting anthropocentricity. To count man as part and parcel of nature emphasizes the continuity of the human, animal, organic, and inorganic worlds and suggests that human behavior may be amenable to the same kinds of investigation that are effective in studying other domains of nature. Similarities as well as differences can be exaggerated, however, and overfacile generalizations can be made from the behavior, say, of rats to human behavior. Human distinctiveness and complexity may be overlooked in a tempting reductive analysis like that of behaviorism.

In still other contexts the natural world, man included, is contrasted with the supernatural. In part at least, the idea of the supernatural has tended to be constructed from allegedly miraculous events, events that, it is claimed, the power and laws of nature could not bring about. (There can be also an a priori element in the grounding of belief in the supernatural. Belief in a transcendent creator-God, who may be himself the subject of a priori proofs, implies the belief that nature's laws and processes can be overruled.)

It is anything but easy, however, to elaborate coherently the nature-supernature distinction. Crucial to it is the claim that we can distinguish what lies within the capacities of nature from what lies beyond them. Our knowledge of nature's powers and laws is itself derived from our experience and observation of events. What we judge to be possible depends upon what we have reason to believe actually occurs or has occurred. When we assemble the experiences out of which we are to construct these judgments about the possible, what shall we do with the happenings that, eventually, we wish to label miraculous? To exclude them would be to imply that we already know what nature's powers are, that there are criteria prior to experience by which we interpret our observations. But to include them makes it impossible for us to treat them later as miraculous exceptions to natural laws.

Certainly, it is not legitimate to move from saying, "This event is inexplicable in terms of our scientific knowledge of nature," to saying, "This event must be a supernatural intervention." The scientist is by no means committed to claiming that he has at any particular moment the concepts and theories adequate for every explanatory task. He is constantly revising and adding to these. We are not, therefore, forced to conclude that an event has a supernatural source on the grounds that it is inexplicable or anomalous in terms of present-day science. Indeed, it is only with the help of an independently established set of beliefs about God that one could plausibly interpret an event as supernatural. (See P. H. Nowell-Smith, "Miracles," in A. G. N. Flew and A. MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology, New York, 1955; and A. G. N. Flew, Hume's Philosophy of Belief, London, 1961.)

Although it has been implied above that God must be conceived in contradistinction to nature, this is true only if God is transcendent, not immanent (or, if immanent, then transcendent as well). In a pantheistic view if nature may be distinguished from God, it is only as different views or aspects of one and the same reality.

Historical Transformations

The history of philosophical ideas of nature almost coincides with the history of philosophy itself. Where a philosophy is at all systematic, even if it is avowedly antimetaphysical, it cannot avoid stating or implying some interpretation of nature. This makes it impossible to compress the history of these interpretations into one entry. The comments that follow are thus no more than indications that the philosophers named made significant contributions to the development of the idea.

When the Ionian pre-Socratic philosophers asked, "What is nature?" they assumed that the question demanded an answer in terms of a primitive substance or substances out of which the world is constructed. One of the more reasonable answers was that of Anaximander, who claimed that the ultimate world stuff must be indeterminate and indefinite (apeiron) and could not be identified with familiar stuffs like water, air, and so on. But although plausible, Anaximander's answer was also unhelpful precisely because the apeiron lacked all determinateness and explanatory power. Far more fruitful was the Pythagorean concern not primarily with the question "What is nature made from?" but with "What is its structure?" where "structure" means geometrical form. We need to know only that the constituents of the world are able to receive mathematically describable form, and the way is opened for investigating how natural objects are related, in detail, to their underlying geometrical structure.

To Plato the possibility of knowledge of nature (or of the natures of things) rests on the intelligibility of the Forms that things imitate (or in which they participate). The creation story in the Timaeus (which came to have enormous influence) represents God and the Forms as distinct from each other, the spatiotemporal worldmutable naturebeing created after the model of the eternally unchanging Forms. It is a world necessarily deficient in important respects; the very existence of time makes it unstable and incomplete. On the other hand, it is the product of a divine creativity. God in his goodness does not withhold being from anything that might exist, and thus nature displays his fecundity. Here is the initial statement of the vision of nature as a great chain, or ladder, of being.

Aristotle's Unmoved Mover stands to nature as its final or teleological cause, inspiring nature to imitate the divine activity as far as its various constituents are able. Particular things, therefore, are seen as striving to realize their appropriate forms, and in so doing, they realize their own natures. Underlying this view of nature is a clear analogy with biological growth.

To Christian thinkers the primary distinction has, of course, been between the underivative creativity of God and the derivativeness and dependence of nature. Augustine, for instance, contrasts the divine "first cause that causes all and is not caused itself" with "the other causes" (the world of nature) that "both cause and are caused" (created spirits) or are primarily passive effects, corporeal causes (City of God V, 9). This does not preclude a wider use in which mutable spatiotemporal nature is contrasted with divine nature, "the Nature which is immutable is called Creator" (Epistolae, 18, Sec. 2). In Thomas Aquinas, too, God can be called natura naturans and the contrast made with natura naturata, the creating contrasted with the created nature (Summa Theologiae IIaIIae, 85, 6).

It was the Pythagorean-Platonic strand in philosophy of nature that furthered and came to dominate the rise of modern science. In Johannes Kepler, for example, nature appears as the realm of the quantitative, a realm amenable to mathematical study and, indeed, to more precise study than ancient philosophy ever demonstrated. Such a view of nature could coexist with a religious interpretation of things, for the mathematical structure could be taken as supplied and sustained by the mind of God.

Although in one way the growth of a mathematical science promised most impressively to unify nature by bringing widely diversified phenomena under laws, in another way it produced new problems about the relation of man to his world, problems that led to various dualismsbifurcations of naturesuch as René Descartes's. Those aspects of our experience that were not amenable to exact measurement were no longer to be identified with objectively real, accurately cognized features of the world. The measurable qualities were primary, the rest secondary, qualitiescolors, sounds, tastes, and the like. Although materialist metaphysics boldly attempted (and still attempts) to reunite nature and man by describing the full range of his perceptual, moral, and imaginative life in terms of matter and motion, in a writer like Thomas Hobbes, for example, such explanations were only promissory notes. A great deal of development in physiology had to occur before the details of the mechanisms involved could be conjectured with any real plausibility.

Descartes gave the world of mind distinct ontological status alongside corporeal nature. Although this dualism saved mind from loss of reality or reduction to the nonmental, it introduced the problem, unsolvable in Cartesian terms, of how this bifurcated nature can yet be one, how the processes of mind and of matter can impinge on each other. The philosophies of nature in Benedict de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz both try strenuously to deal with this problem. Spinoza affirms a monistic and pantheistic position (Deus sive natura ), but the dualism breaks out again in the inexplicable relation between extension and thoughta dualism not of substances but of attributes. In Leibniz's pluralist world the relation between material and mental aspects of monads is no more intelligible.

George Berkeley's account of nature involves a radical criticism and rejection of the notion of material substance. Our experience could, he argued, be explained simply in terms of minds and their ideas, including, crucially, the divine mind, in which the totality of sensible things exists.

In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant the burden of creativity further shifts to the human percipient. If we ask Kant why nature presents to us the persistent basic structure that it does present (such as the ubiquity of cause-effect relations and the spatiotemporal nature of all experience), his answer is that we are here dealing with the inescapable conditions for any experience of nature at all because "the understanding is itself the source of the laws of nature" (Critique of Pure Reason, A 127). The natural world, in the sense of the totality of things, is not in Kant's view a given whole, not an object of knowledge; for instance, whether we try to show that the world is finite or infinite, our thought runs into an impasse.

In G. W. F. Hegel the dominant language is of development, nisus, toward the realization of Absolute Spirit, the end for which nature exists. Necessary transitions, logical rather than temporal, are made from level to level, from nature as inert matter with its externality to life, consciousness, the inwardness of spirit. Subsequent philosophies of nature, however, like those of Henri Bergson, Samuel Alexander, and A. N. Whitehead, were avowedly evolutionary, understandably so in an age that saw rapid development of the biological sciences, particularly biological evolutionary theory, and that had a new historical consciousness of human existence. Alexander saw the evolutionary process as the continuing "emergence" of the qualitatively new: God was to be conceived not as the initial creator or sustainer of nature but as the extrapolation of the evolutionary process to an ideal limit.

Theories involving a life force or other speculative, teleological accounts of nature have been strenuously opposed by various forms of materialism and antimetaphysical positivism.

use of analogies

Successive conceptions of nature (like conceptions of the state) can be seen as a procession of images or controlling analogies. Dominant in Greek cosmology, for instance, was the image of nature as suffused with life and intelligence, like a living and growing organism. At the opposite pole, as in some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cosmologies, nature is pure machine, directed from without by the divine intelligence. Or, again, nature is neither permeated by mind nor is it a mechanism in the hand of its Mechanic; it is a self-transforming system, essentially temporal, whose development is best understood through the analogies of biological evolution or human history. To make explicit the guiding analogy is an important step in appraising an account of nature. For example, it is a standing temptation for a philosopher who is working out such an account to overextend an explanatory principle that is proving dramatically fruitful in some limited area of investigation to make it seem to cover nature as the totality of things and processes.

Nature as Norm

Corresponding to different philosophies of nature are markedly different answers to questions about the relation of nature to value: Can values be in any way derived from descriptions of nature? does nature set any norms for man? can appeals to nature and the natural properly settle moral or aesthetic perplexities? Various answers to these questions have been suggested in naturalistic ethical theories and in discussion of the naturalistic fallacy.

If, on the one hand, nature is seen as irreducibly complex, the theater not of a simple cosmic process but of countless and diverse processes, and if these processes have produced mind but are not themselves guided by intelligence, then there will be little plausibility in arguing directly from "natural" to "good" or "obligatory."

On the other hand, where nature is taken as created by a wholly good, wise, and omnipotent deity, to be natural is prima facie, to be worthy of being created by such a deity. But the existence of evil, however accounted for, makes the inference, even in this context, unreliable. The natural man may now be contrasted with the regenerate man, and "natural" thus come to have a depreciatory sense. Alternatively, the sinful can be held as unnaturalthat is, as perverting the divinely appointed course of nature. The question "What is natural?" cannot now, however, be answered from a simple inspection of what actually happens in the world.

historical examples

The demand that we should follow nature occurs in a wide variety of ethical theories, not only in Christianity. It was against an ethic of following nature that J. S. Mill eloquently argued in his "Essay on Nature" (in Three Essays ). To Mill nature means either (1) "the sum of all phenomena, together with the causes which produce them" or (2) those phenomena that take place "without the agency of man." Which of these senses can be intended when someone is enjoined to follow nature or when some act is condemned as unnatural? In the first sense every action is natural; no ground is given for discrimination between alternative courses. But is the second sense more helpful? "For while human action cannot help conforming to Nature in the one meaning of the term, the very aim and object of action is to alter and improve Nature in the other meaning." Behind the injunction to follow nature lies a dim belief that "the general scheme of nature is a model for us to imitate." Look at nature in some detail, however. Its processes are quite indifferent to value and desert. "Nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's every day performances." Even if it were true that some good ends were ultimately and obscurely served and realized by nature's processes, that would give no license to men to follow nature as a moral exemplar (to "torture because nature tortures," for example).

In any case, Mill argues, the presence of evil and indifference to value in nature cannot be reconciled with theistic claims about the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God. It is nonsense to argue that such a God has to bend to stubborn necessities since he "himself makes the necessity which he bends to."

With regard to human nature, as with nature at large, Mill's imperative is "not to follow but to amend it." Morality cannot be founded on instinct but on a strenuously achieved victory over instinct, as courage is a victory over fear. Similar views are found in T. H. Huxley and even, with important qualifications, in the later Sigmund Freud.

Philosophical views of nature can be relevant to problems of evaluation in much more complex ways than we have thus far noted. One's conception of how man is related to the rest of the natural world may help to determinein conjunction with many other factorsone's sense of the importance or unimportance of human life, the roles judged reasonable and unreasonable for men to adopt. Here are some historical examples.

Did a geocentric astronomy give a uniquely privileged place to Earth and to humanity? The symbolism was ambiguous; to be in the center was certainly to be the focus of the cosmic drama of fall and redemption. "Man is but earth," said John Donne. "'Tis true; but earth is the centre" ("Sermon Preached at St. Paul's, Christmas Day, 1627"). Yet the center, the sublunary region, was nevertheless the humblest position, the realm of mutability, in contrast to the unchanging heavens. The shift to a heliocentric view was not, therefore, a catastrophic and disorienting demotion. It could be seen as an equally effective symbolic expression of creatureliness, Earth being placed in a proper subordination to the sun (for example, see Nicolas Copernicus and Kepler). "The sun, seated on his royal throne, [does] guide his family of planets" (Kepler, De Revolutionibus, Book I, Ch. 10).

A far more radical shift in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cosmology was the move toward acceptance of the universe as infinite and with that the obliterating of a locatable center or circumference. But this view, which, in fact, had no effective scientific backing, was largely a late development of the metaphysical Platonic idea of God's infinite fecundity, a view that also guaranteed humanity a position of dignity in the ladder of being (see A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Ch. 4). This well shows how (at least in a period of metaphysical confidence) the importance or unimportance of man has not been a matter of attempted inference from observations of nature alone.

The same point can also be illustrated from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century arguments about the alleged "cosmic fall." If nature is inclement and hostile, this is because nature participated in the effects of man's fall into sin. It follows that the proper, God-intended destiny of man cannot be found in this fallen nature; it must be discovered in the revealed word of God.

More generally, reference to man's place in nature, for instance to his physical minuteness, could be used to depreciate the quest for "worldly" glory as a preparation for spiritual discipline. "Who can be great," asked Drummond of Hawthornden, "on so small a Round as is this Earth?" And Blaise Pascal asked: "Qu'est ce qu'un homme dans l'infini?" ("What is a man in face of the infinite?"). The vastness of nature could equally well be taken as evidence of man's importance in God's eyes; for on independent theological grounds the whole of nature could be seen as primarily a dwelling place for man. As Pierre de la Primaudaye expressed it, "I cannot marvell enough at the excellencie of Man, for whom all these things were created and are maintained." Most of these arguments, with their ingredients capable of endless variation, assume that "in order to form a correct estimate of ourselves we must consider the results of the investigations into the dimensions and distances of the spheres and stars" (Maimonides)mutatis mutandis for later cosmologies.

In sharp contrast, at a time when there is little or no metaphysical and theological confidence and when deriving value judgments from statements of fact is deemed logically impossible, it is tempting to deny that accounts of nature can have any bearing on problems of value. F. P. Ramsey wrote: "My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits" (Foundations of Mathematics ). It is possible to make one's judgments about the value of human life independently of cosmic reflections and then to adopt an imaginative picture of the natural world that harmonizes rather than conflicts with that evaluation. There can be no logical or philosophical objections to that as long as one realizes exactly what is being done. Such an imaginative exercise, however, must be distinguished from a thoroughgoing anthropocentric philosophy of nature, and Ramsey himself has been criticized for falling into exactly that (see J. J. C. Smart, Philosophy and Scientific Realism, New York, 1963, p. 25). For Ramsey went on to say: "I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of human and possibly animal sensation."

It is worth noting, finally, that arguments about aesthetic judgments have also relied on the vocabulary of nature and natural and relied on it in many differing and conflicting ways. Presenting or being true to nature has sometimes meant the faithful mirroring of the empirical world or the pursuit of the ideal type or the pursuit of the average type or a concern with whatever has not been modified by man (see A. O. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, "Nature as Aesthetic Norm"). Works of art have been commended as sharing the characteristics of nature through being regularly patterned (compare to nature's mathematical intelligibility), through being rich in content, or through being austerely simple. To be natural can be to show spontaneity, to be unfettered by artificial rules, to reach toward the unspoiled and primitive. Where there is such extraordinary conflict of senses, only a scrutiny of the context can determine what criteria are being applied in any particular case, and a writer who is aware of this web of ambiguities in "natural" and "nature" may well decide to choosewherever possiblewords of greater precision and stability of meaning.

See also Aesthetic Judgment; Alexander, Samuel; Anaximander; Augustine, St.; Bergson, Henri; Berkeley, George; Copernicus, Nicolas; Cosmology; Descartes, René; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hobbes, Thomas; Kant, Immanuel; Kepler, Johannes; Laws of Nature; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken; Maimonides; Mill, John Stuart; Natural Law; Pascal, Blaise; Plato; Ramsey, Frank Plumpton; Smart, John Jamieson Carswell; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Whitehead, Alfred North.


Because of the almost unlimited scope of the topic, references are for the most part confined to works mentioned in the text of the article or to which the article is in some general way indebted.

background to greek philosophies of nature

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Edited by W. D. Ross. rev. ed., 2 vols. Oxford, 1924. Δ (V), 4.

Bumet, John. Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato. London, 1914; paperback ed., 1962.

Crombie, I. M. An Examination of Plato's Doctrines. 2 vols. New York: Humanities Press, 19621963. Vol. II, Ch. 2.

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Heinemann, F. Nomos und Physis. Basel: F. Reinhardt, 1945.

Kirk, G. S., and J. E. Raven. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Pohlenz, M. "Nomos und Physis." Hermes 81 (1953): 418438.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. 2 vols. London: Routledge, 1945. Vol. I, especially Ch. 5, on nature and convention.

Ross, W. D. Aristotle. London, 1923; 2nd ed., 1930. Ch. 3.

wide-ranging historical interpretations

Burtt, E. A. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945.

Lovejoy, A. O. Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1948. See "Nature as Aesthetic Norm."

Lovejoy, A. O. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Lovejoy, A. O. and George Boas, eds. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935. See "Some Meanings of 'Nature.'"

other studies

Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1925; paperback ed., New York, 1958.

Maritain, Jacques. La philosophie de la nature. Paris: Téqui, 1935.

Mill, John Stuart. Three Essays on Religion. London, 1874; reprinted, 1904.

Ramsey, F. P. The Foundations of Mathematics. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1931; paperback ed., Paterson, NJ, 1960. See epilogue.

Russell, Bertrand. Mysticism and Logic. London: Allen and Unwin, 1917. See especially Ch. 3, "A Free Man's Worship."

Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays, edited by Paul Edwards. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Sherrington, Charles. Man on His Nature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1940.

Weizsäcker, C. F. von. Die Geschichte der Natur. Göttingen, 1948. Translated by F. D. Wieck as The History of Nature. London: Routledge, 1951.

Whitehead, Alfred North. The Concept of Nature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1920.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Nature and Life. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1934.

Ronald W. Hepburn (1967)

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