Against Nature, by Steven Vogel

 Recognising ourselves in Nature

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Vogel’s work is one of the best accounts, and critical interrogations, of the concept of ‘Nature’ ever written.  Its thoughtful and careful analysis of this complex and ambiguous concept makes you realise how crude and incoherent many of our contemporary discussions of Nature are. This is really environmental and philosophical thinking on a new level of precision and engagement, and is equally important for its revelatory implications for our understanding of ‘natural science’, both as a practice and as an epistemological attitude towards the world, suggesting how what we call science is less an unproblematic description of an objective world and more a social product or construction shaped by ideology and concealed assumptions about the status of the ‘observer’. Indeed, he notes that one of the main points or byproducts of the concept of ‘Nature’ is precisely to naturalise these ideological and socially informed ways of thinking and relating to the world.

Understanding more clearly what we mean by the word ‘Nature’ is obviously a central concern of Blake’s whole work and vision. For a poet who once famously declared “where man is not, nature is barren”, and “Whoever believes in nature, disbelieves in God”, engaging with the debate about ‘Nature’ and its status is clearly both problematic and necessary, in an age of environmental frameworks, nature retreats, David Attenborough hagiography, and a lively resurgence of pagan, Wicca and animist beliefs. Challenging and reframing what we mean by ‘Nature’ is a key theme of his work – in fact, perhaps the key theme of his work.

“I rest not from my great task! To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes/Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity” – William Blake, Jerusalem. Blake’s image strikingly recalls the shamanic cave art of the Ice Age and Upper Paleolithic, the first time humanity reached out to recognise itself in the imaginative world around itself. Instead of leaving the cave Blake goes deep inside it, revealing that the “without” is actually deeply connected to the “within”.

His mission, he said – his “great task” – was to open the eyes of humanity “inwards into the Worlds of Thought” – to reveal that reality is not a natural construct or natural phenomenon, but an emergent human and spiritual dimension. Blake believed that “every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause”, and that reality existed far before the creation of the “natural” world (what we now think of as the Big Bang), which he says was a relatively late phase in its fall into division. Losing this vision of reality, and our relationship to it, and replacing it with a deference and deification of the world of the ‘Natural Effects” themselves was a profoundly dangerous and alienating activity for Blake.

Vogel’s work is a vital key to unlocking Blake’s thought in this respect. His rigorous, patient problematising of our whole understanding and misunderstanding of concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘science’, and ‘objectivity’ allows us access to a far more sophisticated and urgent world of relationship and responsibility – one that is vital I think, not only for the future of our environments but of ourselves. Thus, Vogel’s attempt “to dissolve false immediacies, to reveal to human subjects that what they think of as ‘natural’ is actually the product of their own socially organised activity”, is a Blakean endeavour through and through.

He himself locates the origin of his arguments in Romantic and German idealist lines of thought, debates which recur – often in a very confused and incoherent way – in many contemporary debates about deep ecology, transhumanism, and an appreciation our proper relationship with the world.

Our post-Enlightenment, detached philosophies, he acutely notes in another Blakean turn of phrase, “fail to acknowledge the human character of the world that surrounds us”. His work suggests the incoherence of our current ways of looking at the world (an incoherence built into the very antinomies and contradictions of the “bourgeois worldview” itself, as he points out).

Through gently interrogating these Enlightenment fantasies, in much the way Blake did in his Songs of Innocence and Experience– applying an Enlightenment critique to the Enlightenment attitude itself – Vogel reveals “the human character of that which appears to be nonhuman” – could there be a better encapsulating of the Fourfold Vision, Blake’s fundamental goal. Like Blake, Vogel suggests that not taking responsibility for our weird, ‘god-like’ position as aware participants and co-creators of reality, has precisely led to the appalling catastrophes and dualisms within which we now struggle: the idea that ‘nature’ is separate from human imagination, for example; that the world exists ‘outside’ from and separate to human consciousness. We need to de-centre the decentering, and align consciousness again with these wider movements.

Vogel’s own deep ecological concerns are evident throughout this remarkable piece. “My deepest purpose in writing this book”, he notes, “was to begin at least to clear the way for a more serious and open examination among environmentally concerned thinkers about what exactly ‘nature’ is and what in the current way it is thought about ought to be criticised and rejected.”

I am equally convinced that environmental philosophy will require a considerably more sophisticated account of what it means when it speaks of “nature” than has in general heretofore been forthcoming if it is to achieve any important results; and here I think the tradition of Critical Theory I am examining has a great deal to offer.

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Introduction: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory

Georg Lukács

This book offers a critical examination of the concept of ‘nature’ as employed in the tradition of German Western Marxism often known as Critical Theory. It focuses on central figures in that tradition: Georg Lukács, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas. I will suggest that a reconsideration and re-evaluation of the problem of nature in Critical Theory can provide important insights relevant to contemporary discussions of nature, particularly those concerned with environmental issues and questions about the social role and meaning of science and technology.

Western Marxism defined itself from the start by its opposition to the “orthodox” tradition associated with writers such as Engels, whose accounts of Marxist philosophy it saw as impossibly simplistic. Thus rather than seeing critical social theory as merely part of some broader and methodologically unitary Science (as Engels did), Western Marxism perhaps more consistently attempted to bring science, too, as a significant thought form of the contemporary world, into the ambit of the critique of ideology. If “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class”, science ought not to be immune; and so the question of its own relation to the social must be raised and also problematized. In the course of the latter critique, it will be above all science’s own claims to neutrality, objectivity, and “value-freedom” that will need to be unmasked.

Natural science itself had to be criticized, not just the scientific effort to remake social theory in its image. The “domination of nature” characteristic of science and technology, the Frankfurt School theorists began to argue, could not be separated from the social domination critical theory had always taken as its theme. The tradition seems to vacillate between these two poles, sometimes (as in Lukács) accepting (natural) science as unexceptionable when applied to the sphere of nature and objecting only to its use as a methodological model for social theory, sometimes however wanting to go further and criticise natural science as such (as in Habermas and the postwar Frankfurt School).

Some of the chief thinkers associated with Critical Theory. One of their central concerns lay in trying to understand and clarify the complex relationship that exists between nature and society. Should we apply the principles of natural science (detachment, quantification, positivism) to social behaviours, and if not why not? Engels tended to view Marxism, for instance, as a science of society on the model of the successful natural sciences. Others, like Lukács thought this was inappropriate: he liked natural science applied to nature, but argued that the ‘social’ was a qualitatively different sort of domain. Still others, like Horkheimer and Adorno, compellingly subjected ‘natural science’ to its own critique, exposing it as a method of domination based on a distorted conception of Enlightenment – Blake would say ‘Urizenic’ – reason, that in itself was rooted in specific social ideas and interests. Vogel takes the next logical step: if what we call ‘natural science’ is in fact a socially constructed practice, as Adorno powerfully suggests, then the two domains draw together again – not because the social is ‘natural’, but because what we call the natural is unavoidably and intrinsically ‘social’, an inevitable reflection and expression of our engagement with it. Put another way, the knower is always involved in the known – as indeed quantum mechanics would later reluctantly concede. Nature is not simply ‘out there’, but ‘in here’ as well.

In fact none of these views turns out to be stable; the difficulties they confront generate a constant tension in which positions shift, reveal inner contradictions, and even threaten to turn into their opposites. In each of these cases the question of the meaning and status of nature produces the difficulty. I will argue that, in fact, the tradition of Western Marxism is bedevilled by a fundamental tension lurking within its epistemological views, one that comes to the surface as soon as the question of nature is posed.

Hegel (1770–1831) lived virtually contemporaneously with Blake – who developed a similar concept of “Contraries” to Hegel’s concept of “dialectics”, a sort of powerful dynamic in which apparently opposing figures or forces are in fact mutually entangled and creatively engaged. This would have implications for every relationship: subject and object, slave and master, society and nature.

On the one hand, the tradition’s roots in classical German philosophy lead it to emphasise (more, for instance, than Engels ever would have) the active and social character of knowledge and to draw familiar Hegelian conclusions about the influence of the socially situated subject on the object known.

But this emphasis stands in uneasy conflict with the tradition’s equally strong (Marxist) commitment to something like a “materialism” that would insist on the existence of a substrate underlying social action making such action possible and not itself constituted by it. If we call that substrate “nature”, the structure of the problem emerges clearly: Is knowledge of nature active and social? Does the socially situated subject influence natural objects?  To answer yes is to remain true to the Hegelian epistemology but to reject any ordinary interpretation of the “materialist” ontology; to answer no is to retain the materialism while rendering problematic not just the activist epistemology but also the entire critique of objectivism and scientism it serves to ground.

‘Antinomy’ refers to a real or apparent mutual incompatibility of two ‘laws’ (it means ‘opposing-laws’), and is a term used in logic and epistemology, particularly in the philosophy of Kant and Marx. There are many examples of antinomy. A self-contradictory phrase such as “There is no absolute truth” can be considered an antinomy because this statement is suggesting in itself to be an absolute truth, and therefore denies itself any truth in its statement. (Blake’s statement “To Generalize is to be an Idiot” is another fine example). A paradox such as “this sentence is false” can also be considered to be an antinomy; for the sentence to be true, it must be false, and vice versa. It’s a brilliant concept with which to understand some of the contradictions and paradoxical outcomes and aspects of both nature and capitalism.

The problem has something of the structure of an antimony, produced by the attempt to combine an activist account of knowledge with a materialist view of nature. By insisting on the significance of what was the great insight of classical German idealism – that knowledge, if it is to be possible at all, must be active and understood as involved from the very start with the object known – such a view asks us to “deconstruct” supposedly natural and familiar phenomena into the hidden social processes by which they were produced. It sees the relation of human subjects to the nature they inhabit as an active and world-changing one and wants therefore to take seriously the idea of nature as a “social category” or more precisely as something socially constructed.

Putting the point this way perhaps throws a slightly different light on the tension just outlined. I will be arguing that two quite different sorts of argument about nature can be distinguished within the tradition of Western Marxism. One is the Hegelian one to which I have already alluded. It insists on the active role of a socially situated subject in constituting the field that subject inhabits; it emphasises the dynamic, the social,  and the historically changing in its account of what the world is like and sees the static and putatively “natural” as standing for those aspects of the world whose social character has been hidden or forgotten and that have thus become “reified”.

The model here is Marx’s account of the exchange value of commodities as consisting in truth of “congealed” labour. The role of liberatory critique, for such an argument, is to de-reify or “uncongeal” – to dissolve false immediacies, to reveal to human subjects that what they think of as “natural” is actually the product of their own socially organised activity. The critique of ideology, for such a view, would then involve a critique of contemporary attitudes (including those associated with natural science and technology) for their failure to see the world humans inhabit as one that bears traces of their own actions.

The other argument, conversely, has its roots not in Hegel but in Romantic and Lebenphilosophische traditions; for it, “nature” and more generally that which is Other than the human or social take on a positive sign, and contemporary science and technology are criticised on completely different and even opposite grounds – not because they fail to acknowledge the human character of the world that surrounds us but rather because they violate that world’s otherness, its specificity as an ontological realm behind the human and not finally graspable by it.

“The role of liberatory critique, for such an argument, is to de-reify or ‘uncongeal’ – to dissolve false immediacies, to reveal to human subjects that what they think of as ‘natural’ is actually the product of their own socially organised activity.” Or in Blake’s terms: “If the doors of [natural] perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” What is hiding the infinite and the imaginative, Blake notes, is the concept “Nature”.

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Deep Ecology and Environmental Ethics

Of course versions of this sort of critique of science and technology are common in contemporary environmental discussions associated with “deep ecology” and related positions. But it faces, I will argue, a series of deep and indeed ultimately fatal problems as a philosophical view, deriving fundamentally from the difficulty it confronts in explaining how it can itself come to know the nature that it claims dominative worldviews fail to comprehend. Its naturalism stands in conflict with its claims about the absolute otherness of nature, and the result is either incoherence or vacuity: either it grounds its critique in substantive claims about nature without being able to explain how such claims are possible or could avoid the trap of again denying nature’s otherness, or else it makes no such claims and so leaves its critique utterly empty.

As Vogel suggests, the concept of “Nature” is not itself “natural”: it is what ecological philosopher Timothy Morton terms an “arbitrary rhetorical construct” that “wavers in between the divine and the material. Far from being something ‘natural’ itself, nature hovers over things like a ghost.” This “hovering” aspect to the word is why in some cultures “Nature” is referred to as “Maya” or “Māyā”, a delusory veil woven over our perception of reality to ensnare us to it – what Blake terms “Vala”, or what the Book of Revelations sometimes refers to as “Mystery”.

I want rather to hold onto the intuition of the Frankfurt School, and of contemporary environmental ethics as well, according to which deep and significant normative issues are indeed raised by our interactions with the natural world – but I want to do so without falling into the difficulties of a naturalism embarrassed about its own epistemological status. My suggestion then is to consider the other line of argument just mentioned, the quasi-Hegelian one that sees nature as socially constructed and that criticises contemporary views of the natural not for their attempt to dominate that which is Other but for their failure to recognise the human character of that which appears to be nonhuman.

Such a line points (back) to something like a “philosophy of practice”, to an older tradition in Marxist philosophy that saw the materialist reformulation of Hegelian epistemology as consisting in the substitution of concrete human labour for the abstract activity of Geist. This suggests the specific form in which the thesis that “nature is a social construction” will appear in this context: as a claim that emphasises the way in which the environment that surrounds us and that we take for granted as “natural” turns out on investigation to be the product of human labour and hence literally socially constructed.

The environment we inhabit is to a remarkable extent a “built” environment; the mark of the human can be found on almost everything we see. More generally, I will argue, it is through our practical activity, socially organised and historically variable as it is, that the world we inhabit comes to be, and for this reason that world and our relationship with it necessarily possess a normative component. To say this is to reject dualism: the “natural” world and the social one are not distinguishable, because the Umwelt, the surrounding world of “nature”, is itself in various senses the product of social practices. If this is the case, then a critical theory will indeed have much to say, and of a normative character, about nature – not because that theory is itself grounded in a naturalism but precisely because of nature’s own sociality.

Every part of this scene is the result and realisation of human social energy and activity, including the picture itself. As Vogel notes, “The objects ‘naturally’ surrounding us have social roles and meanings, they are literally ‘social constructs”’ built by human labour; the ‘natural environment’ is never encountered independently of its social context; and the ‘nature’ revealed by natural science cannot be separated from the socially organised practices through which such a science operates.” He lists four ways in which ‘Nature is a Social Category’: first the obvious signs – all the wooden gates, stone walls, benches, bridges, boats and so on that we see in ‘nature’ are of course literally social constructions, expressions of human labour and imagination. Virtually all ‘things’ that we see and are in daily contact with are of this nature (houses, roads, paths, books, iPhones – all are human transformations of ‘nature’). Moreover, what we often consider “natural” landscapes are in fact themselves profoundly shaped by human activity and decision-making: “Writers such as William Cronon, René Dubos, and J. Donald Hughes have pointed out the degree to which the ‘natural’ landscapes of places like New England, France, Greece are the consequences of centuries of human inhabitations and transformation, so that much of what we take as their intrinsic characteristics are in fact the result of human action.” The Lake District, for example – so often ‘Romanticised’ (yet another social dimension) – is the result of a whole mass of human activity: from Bronze Age intensive farming, forestry commission work, canal dredging and enclosure laws, to tourist improvement, environmental ethics, European sheep farming subsidies, and ongoing National Trust, RSPB and Unesco work etc.  It might best be described as a ‘cultural landscape’. Going ever deeper, even the way we see the stars, the oceans, the mountains – as potential mineral reserves, or travel opportunities, or as religious “awe” – betray their rootedness in various particular, and historically and culturally changing, ways of seeing. There is not a “view from nowhere”, as McGilchrist notes – we have to see from some perspective – even trying not to see from some perspective, is also some perspective – a peculiarly cold and detached one, he notes. On still another level, quantum physics now reveals that our involvement is absolutely intrinsic to the phenomena we witness on even a micro level. This correlates with Blake’s vision: the goal of his work, something implicitly known and conveyed in all true poetry, is to recognise the humanity within everything. As S. Foster Damon remarks, for Blake “Vision is the perception of the human in all things. All nature is a projection of ourselves.” Understanding who we are – that is, understanding how we see – was the central task of our life for him: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

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Natural Science as Social Activity

One trouble with Engels’s epistemological discussions was that he simply took for granted without argument the validity of the natural sciences and of certain standard accounts of their methods; the strongly critical attitude with which he and Marx approached the results of contemporary political economy was never applied to the results of contemporary natural science.

Natural? Science is always, inevitably, everywhere, a socially constructed, ideologically informed, practice. This is not a criticism as such, it is recognition that, like art, it is the result of massive human collaborative effort, filtering, decision-making, equipment, funding, energy, and social skill. As Vogel notes, “Recent theorists such as Bruno Latour, Joseph Rouse, and others have emphasized the extent to which science itself has to be seen as a practice, as well as the extent to which the entities about which science reports are themselves again quite literally constructions – ‘real’, doubtless, but ‘constructed’ nonetheless.”

Western Marxism generally breaks with Engels, as I have said, but unfortunately tends not to break with this tradition of not inquiring too carefully into what natural science’s methods or results really are as opposed to unquestioningly accepting that science’s own ideological self-conception.

Thus Lukács no less than Engels assumes that the (natural) Scientific Method is simply correct when applied to the realm of nature, whereas Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, too, seem to take for granted the truth of standard positivist accounts of natural science’s method, wanting only to criticise the social meaning and consequences of the use of such a method. And Habermas’s early epistemological work as well (e.g., in Knowledge and Human Interests) is badly flawed by an uncritical acceptance of “positivist” accounts of method that by the time it was published had already come in for significant critique even from within the supposedly positivist camp. The truth is that, beyond generalised critiques of positivism, little serious consideration has been given to contemporary philosophy of science within the postwar tradition of Critical Theory, and this is a significant fault.

By undercutting the older image of an objective and value-free (and asocial) science impassively examining an independent nature, post empiricism allows us to understand the senses in which natural science and the nature it describes to us must themselves be seen as practical, historical, and social products. Recent theorists such as Bruno Latour, Joseph Rouse, and others have emphasized the extent to which science itself has to be seen as a practice, as well as the extent to which the entities about which science reports are themselves again quite literally constructions – “real”, doubtless, but “constructed” nonetheless.

This is rather how many environmentalists see “Nature” – as if it was somehow something just “there’, naively independent of any framework, cognitive apparatus, nervous systems, cultural human values, or imaginative engagement. This view is itself a social attitude – a deeply dissociated and somewhat schizoid social attitude – that has its roots, ironically, in the Cartesian Enlightenment philosophy, whose whole unnatural cutting off of the two inter-involved and interconnecting worlds of observed and observed, the human and the ‘natural’, has led to the current crisis.

My argument is also driven by another concern with current issues, to which I have already made reference: environmental theory, and especially the debates over “deep ecology” and other anti-anthropocentric critiques of contemporary approaches to nature. Discussions of nature, and even the old-fashioned idea of a “philosophy of nature”, are today back on the agenda because of the recognition that contemporary environmental problems require a philosophical response and can no longer be treated as unrelated to fundamental questions of ethics and politics and indeed even epistemology.

I am convinced that environmental theory represents an important field for critical philosophical refection. Yet I am equally convinced that environmental philosophy will require a considerably more sophisticated account of what it means when it speaks of “nature” than has in general heretofore been forthcoming if it is to achieve any important results; and here I think the tradition of Critical Theory I am examining has a great deal to offer.

I share with theorists of deep ecology a serious concern about the meaning and consequences of the current environmental crisis, a crisis that I agree with them in seeing as a symptom of a deeper problem whose roots lie in the mistaken way the industrialised West views the world of nature. But I have already said enough to suggest that my account of that mistake will be quite different from the one more familiar from their arguments. My deepest purpose in writing this book was to begin at least to clear the way for a more serious and open examination among environmentally concerned thinkers about what exactly “nature” is and what in the current way it is  thought about ought to be criticised and rejected.

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Against Nature

Against Nature – the title of course is deliberately meant to be provocative. “Nature” has been a problem for the tradition of Western Marxism from the start, I will be arguing, and there are good epistemological reasons why this has been so. In this sense I suppose the title simply suggests that it might be better off simply dropping the concept.

But by this I do not mean to make the tempting move we have already seen in Lukács, demurely asserting that a critical theory of society has nothing to say about nature. Instead I mean to suggest that critical theorists ought to learn to take seriously the telos toward which so many of their epistemological arguments seem to move – the thesis that a socially constructed nature must be as intrinsically connected to and even part of the social world, and hence that an adequate critical theory of society must at the same time quite literally be a critical theory of nature.  In such a theory the “natural” would stand for that which still needs to be deconstructed into the social practices that make it possible, a deconstruction oriented by the hope that humans could take responsibility for the world they inhabit instead of believing that world to be determined by external forces they are unable to control. In this sense human liberation itself would be “against nature”.

The last sentence sounds shocking only because against nature has also come to mean “normatively wrong”.  But it is exactly this equation, and the naturalism it involves, that it seems to me crucial to reject. Such a naturalism (characteristic, e.g., of much “radical” environmentalism) thinks it can resolve what are fundamentally social questions – about the sorts of practices we as a society ought to be engaging in, the sort of world we ought to inhabit, the sorts of people we want to be – by appealing to “what nature demands” of us or to the dangers of a dominated but powerful nature that might “take its revenge” on us.

“The naturalistic fallacy is a constant political danger, whether it takes the form (say) of critiques of homosexuality or of nuclear power.”

Yet in such appeals the social is not avoided so much as it is smuggled in: instead of allowing the human community to decide these matters democratically, those who make such arguments attempt to short-circuit democratic discourse by labelling as “natural” – and hence unquestionable – what are inevitably really their own socially situated normative claims. The naturalistic fallacy is a constant political danger, whether it takes the form (say) of critiques of homosexuality or of nuclear power. To call either of these against nature is to abdicate moral responsibility, pretending that fundamental questions about how to live can be answered by appeals to something other than the social realm that is in fact the only source of normative justification. To say that nature is “constructed”, then, is in a sense simply a way of saying that an appeal to nature is always nothing other than an appeal to us and to our own discursive processes of justification.

the anti-anthropocentric attitude: “it is exactly this equation, and the naturalism it involves, that it seems to me crucial to reject.”

Talk of nature as “socially constructed” or for that matter of the social realm as the only source of normative justification, tends to worry environmental thinkers; they hear in it the kind of anthropocentric denial of nature’s otherness and value many see as the source of contemporary environmental problems. I plead guilty to something like anthropocentrism, at least if the latter is correctly understood, and will indeed suggest that Habermas’s conception of discourse ethics provides a persuasive argument for the assertion that humans do possess a distinctive moral status as the subjects of normative discourse.

I will argue indeed that to see the environment as not other than us but rather as something we shape and construct through our practices is precisely to see that our relations to nature are normative through and through. To view the environment as socially constructed is to see it as something for which we are literally responsible; it is in this recognition of our inextricable connection to and responsibility for the world we inhabit, it seems to me, that the source of a morally justifiable “environmental ethic” is to be found.

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The Necessary Separation of Subject and Object, Society and Nature, in Capitalism

The idea of the “passive”, disconnected, observer, who simply reflects an independently existing “outside” world, was one of the central elements of Enlightenment thinking. All of the Romantic thinkers and artists, in touch with their own creative processes, recognised its fallacy and sought to challenge its suppositions. As Coleridge noted, “Newton was a mere Materialist – Mind in his system is always passive – a lazy Looker-on on an external World”. Ironically perhaps, science itself has now conceded that the human mind plays a central role in every measurement, every perception, every frame (see Bohr, Bohm, Whitehead, Barfield etc). Sadly, many ecologists and environmentalists seem stuck in the seventeenth-century Newtonian, pre-Romantic, version of things – that we can detach “nature’ from our perception and social knowing of it.

For Lukács the “bourgeois worldview” involves the taking up of a “contemplative attitude” by the subject toward the world with which it is confronted, an attitude whereby that world is viewed as separate from the subject and knowledge is seen as a passive reflection in the subject’s mind of what is “out there” independently of it. But this, Lukács believes, is just the attitude taken up by natural science.

Here nineteenth-century Marxism’s essentially Enlightenment view of natural science as offering a paradigm for a liberating knowledge that might help overcome oppression is replaced by a new suspicion of natural science as in itself oppressive, a suspicion that will henceforth characterise Western Marxist discussions of science.

“There is something highly problematic in the fact that capitalist society is predisposed to harmonise with scientific method”, Lukács writes in History and Class Consciousness, and the distrust this predisposition generates is a central theme of the work. He sees a set of philosophical consequences in Marx’s account of the fetishism of commodities whose implications Engels had missed. Under capitalism, Marx had claimed, human relations and human activities congeal into the form of things; the model, of course, is the way in which the exercise of human labour power to produce a commodity takes the form of an apparently objective property of the commodity produced, its exchange value.

“There is something highly problematic in the fact that capitalist society is predisposed to harmonise with scientific method”. Capitalism utilised this sense of separation of “Nature” from society to exploit and dominate it. Oddly, much of current Environmental thinking seeks to preserve this schism, presenting “Nature” as an entirely “Other” or “non-human” domain. Both views are rooted in profound alienation.

For Lukács this process of reification (Verdinglichung) suggested more generally a basic propensity for the institutions and policies of the capitalist social order to appear as eternal and unalterable givens, in which their source in human activity is systematically hidden: they appear thinglike.

The sleep of Imagination produces ‘Nature’. As Blake suggested, we actively participate in the creation of reality, and then forget our own role in its emergence. His point was to wake us up.

But to say this is to say that they appear like nature – like a kind of “second nature”, in the famous phrase, not in the Hegelian sense of a sittliche realm of Objective Spirit in which humans can feel at home but rather in the sense of a false consciousness in which the human origin of the human world has been forgotten. If this is so, it begins to become clear what is “problematic” about natural science.

The methodological dualism Lukács asserts in History and Class Consciousness is highly questionable given his own assumptions. It seems to require for its own plausibility something like a fundamental ontological dualism as well, between the realm of nature and the realm of society. This seems to run directly counter to Marxist “materialist” assertions about the continuity between nature and the human, and to reinstitute the very centrality of the category of Geist in social theory that Marx and Engels had so decisively rejected (a rejection Lukács shows no sign of finding questionable).

But the dualism fits uneasily with Marxist “materialism” in quite another sense as well. For if “ideas” reflect material conditions, and if “in every society the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class”, then it is not clear how natural science could in any case escape the charge of being part of the ideological superstructure even as an account of nature. In a book so centrally dedicated to criticising the worldview of contemporary society, how could natural science, so closely tied to that worldview, be immune from critique?

A very different thesis is now hinted at – and it too will shadow Western Marxism over the decades to come:  that contemporary natural science is only one possible approach to nature, an ideological one corresponding to a reified society, and that a “new society” in which reification is abolished will possess a “new science” whose methods will differ radically from those of the science we know today.

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Reification versus Self Recognition

The argument has several steps. The first we have already seen: it is the identification of commodity fetishism, or in its broader form reification, as the central structural fact of contemporary society. The next step, in accordance both with the Marxist conception of “superstructure” and with Lukács’s own methodological insistence on the category of totality, is to examine a number of contemporary social institutions and phenomena to show the ways in which reification works itself out all across the social field.

Lukács, with much dept to Weber, here uncovers a set of striking structural homologies among a remarkably diverse group of areas – including the capitalist state, the legal system, journalism, economics, management techniques, factory organization, bureaucracy, and so forth. His claim is that these all share a deep structure, that this deep structure is simply that of the “bourgeois worldview” (and the bourgeois world) itself, and that ultimately its roots lie in the phenomenon of reification.

He names this worldview the contemplative attitude and subjects it to a detailed analysis and critique. For the contemplative attitude, the world that surrounds us is something independent of us, given, and immutable; we observe it but cannot change it. The investigator of this world and the actor in it alike relate to it as to something separate from them; knowledge is conceived of as the essentially passive receiving of information from a world external to the observer.

The “bourgeois worldview”: “Lukács uncovers a set of striking structural homologies among a remarkably diverse group of areas – including the capitalist state, the legal system, journalism, economics, management techniques, factory organization, bureaucracy, and so forth. His claim is that these all share a deep structure, that this deep structure is simply that of the “bourgeois worldview”. The contemplative attitude separates the producer from the product: what it sees as ‘other’, as ‘object’, is in fact its own projected and reified unconscious.

The world is viewed as objective, as subject to formal laws, as reducible by analysis, and as unchanging. Objective means separate from the subject; we come to know the world by observing it “just as it presents itself” and taking care not to impose upon it our own “subjective” hopes and expectations (which are called “biases”). Subject to formal laws means (among other things) regular, general, predictable; individuals (the “content” that the formal laws are “about”) appear as bearers of abstract properties that allow us to determine which laws apply and to predict, algorithmically, future effects. Reducible by analysis means subject to reductionist explanation; complex wholes are made to be understood by breaking them into the smaller parts of which they are made. Unchanging means essentially ahistorical: because the world external to us is separate from us and subject to universal formal laws, the only changes can undergo are predictable and law-governed ones. The objects themselves may change, and thus have a “history” in a minimal sense (like the history of the solar system, say), but the laws they follow are eternal, and so no fundamental change is possible.

All this produces a deep division between the subject and the object of knowledge, recapitulated at the level of both theory and practice.

Nature is not a ‘thing’. The leaves flow just a bit slower than the river. Nature might be best understood as a ‘phase’ event – a momentary ‘thinglike’ crystallisation of flow, a process of constant transformation that has no objective permanence, status, or external meaning. All these are co-created with the beings that participate in it and which also make up and constitute the flow. To think of Nature as a ‘thing’, a very left brain concept, or something that exists separately from the participant of it, is, paradoxically, the most abstracted and ‘unnatural’ way of experiencing ‘it’.

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The Antimonies of Everyday Life under Capitalism

The contemplative attitude is to be met with, Lukács believed, in a wide set of phenomena in the contemporary world – from the cult of “objectivity” in journalism to the bureaucracy of the modern social welfare state to electoral systems in which voters dutifully choose from among indistinguishable candidates without ever asking why these are the only alternatives they are offered.

Formalism, passivity, a taking for granted of what is as what must be: they are endemic at all levels of our social world and our social discourse, and according to Lukács are ultimately the consequence of a contemporary social structure founded on a mode of production characterised by reification.

In each realm, he furthermore argues, the contemplative attitude finds itself faced by basic antimonies, problems of both a theoretical and practical nature that it cannot resolve. Objectivism finds itself unable to excise all traces of the “subjective” from its knowledge; formalism is stymied by an inability to grasp the real objects of the system in their specificity and concreteness; analysis cannot cope with holistic and emergent properties of systems; the search for eternal laws and predicable procedures is incapable of comprehending historical changes as such. Is/ought, form/content, whole/parts, historical change/eternal verities – “bourgeois thought” is characterised throughout by a set of antithetical oppositions it does not know how to integrate.

The society whose guiding presuppositions derive from the contemplative worldview thus constantly confronts a set of problems it is incapable of resolving, including (to name just a few) bureaucratisation, a conflict between formalism and compassion in the law, a populace increasingly cynical about electoral politics and politicians, and so on.

Lukács’s important claim is that these difficulties at the level of real institutions are connected to a set of theoretical difficulties that can be demonstrated within the worldview itself. It is in this context that he launches in the second section of the essay on reification, into his remarkable rereading of the history of modern philosophy. This is the next step in his argument: to show that the tradition of epistemological thought from Descartes through Hegel represents the working out, on a highly abstract level, of the contemplative attitude and its predicaments.

The processes by which things appear is always concealed under capitalism or the “bourgeois worldview”, because it cannot allow the producer to understand his or her power and involvement in the process. As Blake saw, this unconscious disconnective process was built into Enlightenment theology from the start: he called it “Urizen”.

The central problem for this tradition, Lukács argues, has been to understand how the subject comes to know the object. The tradition thus begins with the assumption of a division between the two (announced explicitly in Descartes), and then sets itself the task of explaining how this division can be overcome.

Knowledge is understood as requiring the possession of a correct model of the objective world in thought, one that reflects” or “corresponds” to what is out there and from which all traces of the “merely subjective” have been eliminated. Assumed from the start, Lukács asserts, is thus precisely the standpoint of contemplation: the world is separate from the knower, and knowledge is a process by which information from the world is passively received by the subject. (If the subject did anything to it, the result could no longer be called a “reflection”, but rather would be “distortion” or “bias”.)

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How to Eradicate the Subject: Nature

Yet a model of the world in thought, of course, is inevitably already “subjective”; the great problem for the modern epistemological position is to discover how to guarantee that the model the knower develops is the correct one – which would require, in turn, having some other prior knowledge of what the world is “really like”.  That which knowledge was therefore supposed to achieve – a grasp of the objective world as it is independent of the knowing subject – is exactly that which “critical” epistemology discovered it to be absolutely incapable of attaining.

Hegel radicalizes the view of knowledge as activity and as world-creating, first by rejecting the notion of noumena as incoherent: the world we know is the only one there is. But he radicalises it in a more significant respect as well, for he sees that the assertion that the world of objects is not external to and separate from the subject has to be supplemented by an account of why it nonetheless seems to be separate – which is to say, in Lukács’s terms, by an account of the origin of reification.

“That which knowledge was therefore supposed to achieve – a grasp of the objective world as it is independent of the knowing subject – is exactly that which ‘critical’ epistemology discovered it to be absolutely incapable of attaining.”

Hegel confronts this question (which earlier idealistic philosophers had hardly noticed) by offering an historical account, a “phenomenology of spirit”. The “objective” world is indeed actively constituted or produced by the spirit that comes to know it, but that spirit does not at first recognise it as such: both phylogenic and ontogenetic maturation must be understood as a process in which the subject comes to recognise itself in the world it confronts – comes to see, that is, that that world is and always was its own product.

In coming to this recognition, though, the subject changes, and so too does its activity: which means so does the world as well. This complicates the epistemology, requiring now a distinction between “in itself” and “for itself”. At first the world is the product of spirit but only implicitly so – and in this sense, because “unconscious spirit” is a contradiction, is also not (yet) really its product. To this kind of “immature” spirit the world appears as an alien and incomprehensible power, an independent Thing which the subject seems incapable of ever comprehending. It must learn, through a complex process of self-reflection, that the world is indeed its own product. But the process whereby it comes to this self-recognition has to be understood as an active one: it recognises itself in the world because it puts itself there, thereby making explicitly and self-consciously true what was in fact the case, but only implicitly, all the time.

Escher’s ‘Drawing Hands’ image brilliantly captures the essence of both Hegelian dialectics and Blake’s imaginative vision: “In coming to this recognition, though, the subject changes, and so too does its activity: which means so does the world as well. It must learn, through a complex process of self-reflection, that the world is indeed its own product.”

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The End of Philosophy: Revolution

This is “the greatness, the paradox and the tragedy of classical German philosophy”: that it brings philosophy right up to its very end, and then points beyond it. For if the solution to the problems of philosophy lies in human practice and not in a thought independent of the world, this means that it lies outside of philosophy itself. The “antimonies of bourgeois thought”, that is, cannot be resolved by yet another thought, in fact cannot be resolved theoretically at all: they can be resolved only by an act in which the self-recognition Hegel imagined only in theory actually takes place. And this act, for Lukács, is of course nothing other than the proletarian revolution, which now turns out astonishingly to have an epistemological significance.

Steven Vogel is Professor of Philosophy at Denison University. This is an edited version of the introduction to his book Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory. To read the full work please click here

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