What tools do we have today to face nature as a philosophical problem? This is hardly a new problem. However, it is far from being conceptually exhausted or socially resolved: an ideological image of nature motivates questions today, as it did in the 19th century, about the space occupied by civilization on earth.
The opposition humanity-nature has not only played a role in the construction of the environmental imaginary, but also in the fundamental categories of Western philosophy. The ontological-transcendental figure of the human being as an absolute subject has permeated metaphysics, from Plato to Hegel, in opposition to a nature whose perfect accidents have appeared as a substratum of the world code, whose order is only possible to re-compose in the abstract space of reason. The nineteenth century effectively demolished some of these assumptions while maintaining another. The famous reversal of Marx in which he turned Hegel upside down already intuited the breaking of the transcendental subject whose rational abilities distanced him from nature. It is the material world and not the “spirit” Marx insisted, that is the basis of human cosmogony. The spirit is only the reflection of the inclemencies to which the world conceivably subjects us. Here nature is no longer just the ‘appearance’ of a spiritual world whose ‘essence’ is in human transcendence. The implacable atheism of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century is not insubstantial in the construction/destruction of the philosophical imaginary of nature. Just as Nietzsche, in his judgment on science, deems it as nothing more than an (natural) instinct justified by bourgeois morality, Freud identifies the construction of the Ego precisely with the civilizing imperative to repress a primordial instinct. The discourse of modernity first recognizes the human being as nature − Darwin no less than those already named − and elaborates on his contradictions as a man, now part of a civilization. But this discovery is not far from the myth of romanticism and its exploration of man as a sensitive being: on the one hand, the sensuality of the world in tragic harmony with the diminishing sensitivity of humanity, and on the other, the sensation of loss after the fall of man from nature, like Adam and Eve from paradise. The pre-Raphaelite myth of William Morris and Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkuntswerk recompose the unity of man-nature in their appeal to an organic universe in which there are no cracks between the nature of man and the nature of nature. Marx’s warning is the tragedy of civilization: the mastery of man over nature is nothing other than the mastery of man over man.
Reason, insisted Theodor W. Adorno in the 1940s, is not the instrument of man’s domination over nature; it is the effect of man’s domination over the inner nature of man himself. Society, he explains, “only because it tolerates nothing not stamped by it, ultimately it tolerates nothing indicative of its own omnipresence and necessarily cites, as its ideological complement, that nature which its own praxis eliminates.” (1) The only way to honor nature, Adorno concludes, is to admit that it no longer exists for human beings. But the nostalgic myth of man in tune with nature is stubborn. It seems that since the days of jugendstil and art nouveau it has not lost an iota of its intensity: Reconnecting with nature is the slogan of Club Meds and lovers of the outdoors. The end of the world, predicted by a mythical thinning of nature − here synonymous with ‘without intervention’ − attempts to undo with a childish polarity, direct contact with nature is opposed to man’s remoteness as an effect of the civilizing process. The paradox is the following: the more one seeks contact and inspiration in the purity of the natural, the less one recognizes the extent to which that nature is not exclusively external. The greater the fascination with the uncorrupted of the natural, the farther the possibilities of admitting that, just as the domination of nature by man is no more than the domain of man over man, the approach of man to nature is not more than the approach of man to a construction of man himself. As Adorno says, because society does not accept anything not stamped by it, it is not capable of recognizing its omnipresence and therefore it is blind to the greatest of its inventions: a nature not marked by civilization.
(1) “… the essay seeks truth contents as being historical in themselves. It does not concern itself with any supposed primeval condition in order to contravene society’s false sociality, which, just because it tolerates nothing not stamped by it, ultimately tolerates nothing indicative of its own omnipresence and necessarily cites, as its ideological complement, that nature which its own praxis eliminates. The essay silently abandons the illusion that thought can break out of thesis into physis, out of culture into nature. Spellbound by what is fixed and admittedly deduced, by artifacts, the essay honors nature by confirming that it no longer exists for human beings.” Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” Notes to Literature, Vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 158.
Pedro Correa Fernández Architect, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, M.Sc Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices from Columbia University. He is currently assistant professor at the School of Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile where he teaches courses related to aesthetics and politics from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.