Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Limits of Naturalism: Plasticity, Finitude and the Imagination

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Limits of Naturalism: Plasticity, Finitude and the Imagination

Article excerpt

Can the world be understood as nature or as something natural? If so, such a premise often produces the idea or belief that human beings are part of nature, namely something which exists independent from the sentient subject. What does such a statement mean?

The postulation that the world and human beings are part of the ontological and phenomenological realm of the 'natural' is founded on the idea of the existence of an ontic reality referred to as 'nature'. But is nature itself an entity in se et per se as metaphysical naturalism purports? Or is it something which has been created or constructed by human beings, something which has its origins in human behaviour (methodological naturalism)? And if the world is mere metaphor, as some would have it, what happens to the concept of 'nature' and the category of the 'natural'? This conceptual and aesthetic conundrum is the inherent product of that phenomenon known as the 'innocence of language'. If there is an innocence of language then this Cartesian res extensa, which we call 'nature', should be understood in the same way by all human beings irrespective of their experience and culture. However, in reality, the conceptualisation of 'nature' and the 'natural' is the product of a 'cultivated experience', which we call culture. Every culture has a specific understanding of what 'nature' and the 'natural' are. This can be seen quite clearly in the different routes taken during the years after c. 500 BCE in China, India, Mesopotamia and Greece, in what has been termed the Axial Age. (1)

In many ways the major puzzle appears to be represented by the lingering and niggling doubt that there is no 'innocence of language'; that the gift of language is not in harmony with the world which it describes and that, in many cases, language itself is endowed with an autonomous capacity, which produces a fictitious world of conventional and arbitrary correspondences between word and things, signifieds and signifiers. It is through language that the res cogitans is connected or separated from the res extensa. Whether physis reflects logos and vice-versa is an old question, a dichotomy which apparently represents the foundation of a conceptual and historical fiction known as 'Western Civilisation'. Plato's dialogue Cratylus captures the inherent and persisting dichotomy characterising occidental thought and epistemologies. (2)

The disharmony between language and the world, however, would only be an enigma if human beings inhabited a tridimensional universe of a rather simple structure. Once change over time occurs, once the Parmenidean world of being evolves into the Heraclitean world of becoming, it loses its primeval innocence and simplicity and becomes complex and messy; that messiness is what we, at least in the West, understand as 'history', and human beings are as much historical beings as they are natural ones. Human beings are not simple but complex entities.

That the same human being can hold two different views or perspectives of the world becomes evident when considering the physiological-psychological differences between the left side and the right side of the brain, and how each side comes to relate to, and know, the world. (3) The left hand side makes use of speech, while the right hand side grasps the world in quite a different fashion. That it is 'natural' for human beings to relate to the world in a number of ways, poses major problems for those who would seem to think that language is the primary means through which human beings interact with their world. One must ask: why did 'nature' provide us with such a variety of ways or modes to approach the world?

We come to know and describe the world through a variety of means: pictorial, music, language, mathematics. Even when we come to use language we have a number of possible genres or modes under which language can operate to describe reality. There is a difference between songs and poems, stories and works of analysis. …

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