Nature as Origin and Difference: On Environmental Philosophy and Continental Thought

By Vogel, Steven | Philosophy Today, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Nature as Origin and Difference: On Environmental Philosophy and Continental Thought


Vogel, Steven, Philosophy Today


Recently the question of what insights and conceptual resources the traditions of continental philosophy might provide to contemporary environmental thought has received much attention; in this essay I would like to consider this issue, focusing in particular on the traditions associated with poststructuralism. To some extent, interest in this question among environmental philosophers has been marked by a fair degree of anxiety- vague sense that "postmodernism," by turning the whole world into a text, denies the very existence of nature and therefore the significance of attempts either to understand the dangers to which it is currently exposed or to argue for the need to protect it.1 Others, of course, have argued on the contrary that contemporary continental thought is not only compatible with but indispensable for an environmental philosophy capable of grasping the character and origin of our current environmental crisis.2 I want in this essay to ask the question of the relation between the "postmodern turn" and environmental theory not so much in terms of the particular debates it has already engendered, but rather at a more abstract level.3 I will identify four accounts of nature that might be distinguished in contemporary continental thought, and try to point out both the connections among them and also the difficulties they each face, asking in turn of each what it might provide in terms of a philosophically adequate environmental theory. The second and third of these are familiar ones deriving from contemporary poststructuralism. The first is probably familiar too, but is older, and is presented here as a contrast, while the fourth, which I will end up defending, is perhaps less well known and hearkens back to an earlier continental tradition associated with certain forms of Hegelian Marxism. The accounts here will be sketchy ones, for which I apologize in advance; what I am interested in developing is a kind of typology of views of nature, and thus what I present will have something of the character of ideal types.

Nature as Origin

Some of those who worry about the supposedly pernicious influence of poststructuralism on environmental philosophy do so in the name of a view of nature that has its own (often unacknowledged) pedigree in the history of continental thought, originating in traditions of Romanticism, vitalism, and neo-Kantianism. The view is certainly a familiar one, and holds a powerful grasp on the contemporary environmental imagination, especially that associated with "deep ecology" and similarly radical views. Nature on this account functions as an immense and complex organic whole, a massive order in which humans are embedded and out of which they emerged. This order has its own logic and teleology that transcend human understanding and even in a certain sense the human world. The "natural" here, indeed, is contrasted with the human-made or "artificial": what is natural is that which occurs through the workings of that massive whole independently of human will or action. Humans have a strange (and in fact paradoxical) role in this account, since they too are part of nature and hence are subject to this higher teleological order, yet in applying "calculative" or "instrumental" rationality in a doomed attempt to achieve control over it they forget their own rootedness in the natural, with dangerous consequences. Similarly, the natural is contrasted in this sort of view with the social, via a set of dichotomies whose tenor we recognize well from Rousseau. Natural impulses are reminders of our animal selves, which is to say our real selves; on top of those are imposed social rules and conventions which serve to transform (and thereby to corrupt) those impulses, producing a social world whose artificial character shows it to be a locus of distortion and deception. Thus humans behave naturally when they act in accordance with "natural processes" (i.e., those that would take place anyway in their absence) while their actions are harmful and unnatural (and immoral) when they act in ways indifferent or worse at cross-purposes to those processes. …

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