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1 Nature, le grand tout

The French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire called nature "Le grand tout". This is an indication of the first main feature of nature, which is that it is 'overpresent' in our contemporary understanding of reality (whereas metaphysics is overabsent). Overpresence basically has to do with the human capacity to partially solve the mystery of reality from just one perspective: that of scientific rationality. Science alone has proved able to understand reality to such a degree as to make the movements of nature predictable and controllable (or so we like to think). Through science and the technology it creates we have been able to dominate nature. The feeling that nature responds to our scientific questioning in a way society, metaphysics or the individual never can has resulted in our belief that the other dimensions are all reduceable to nature as understood by science in its bio-, electro-chemical, physical and other variants. There are sufficient studies which show that the reduction of mind to matter is not the most scientific or rational option (see Jonas & Nagel),* yet the impression remains that everything boils down to nature.*

Since Einstein, that presence of nature has become even more ubiquitous, for Einstein's physical theories are based on an understanding of nature which unites all the possible physical dimensions of the world, one in which the three spatial dimensions necessarily join the temporal dimension. Where possible, contemporary Western culture has driven that presence of nature to excess: nature is everything. But this creates a problem: by being everything, nature becomes nothing. Unmanageable, it becomes necessary to cut it into bits.

2 Nature is space

One first division is between nature understood in spatial and temporal terms. In spatial terms, nature is a thing. Yet that thing is too big for us, for it is as vast as the universe, and as little as a subatomic particle or a pocket of energy. That enormous difference in scale is in itself unmanageable, so we end up drawing distinctions between different kinds of nature. The most typical distinctions for everyday use are these:


  • Outer circle: absolutely everything is nature, from the universe to our own human selves with our passions and our rationality. Darwin's theory of evolution says that even our most complex philosophical reasonings are natural.
  • Middle circle: we tend to call nature only the universe that surrounds us, separated from us, the ones who think about it.
  • Inner circle: we often feel split in two:
    • a more 'natural' part - above all our feelings and drives, things like hunger, thirst, sexual desire
    • our 'higher', seemingly less - because less spontaneous - natural faculties, like thinking, speaking, self-awareness.

In all these cases, we are talking about nature, but with each of these natures, we mean something different: everything is nature, the universe is nature, and part of us is nature. Notice that

  • the first meaning of nature covers all of reality, while the other two meanings of nature allow something else to exist, which is usually the social dimension
  • contemporary culture likes to think about nature in the broadest of terms possible. The more nature encompasses, the better. When we encounter a separation between nature and society, we tend to be in favour of nature and against society

3 Nature is time

Up to now we have considered nature in geographical or spatial terms, but given Einstein, nature also has a temporal meaning. Nature has a past, a present, and a future.

Nature as future: We do not usually talk much about the future of nature, for it smacks too much of authoritarianism, as in


"You should do that".


"Because it's natural."


In the Middle Ages, when something called a teleological understanding of nature existed, we did think about nature in terms of the future, and it is arguable that we may be in need of a renewed sensibility about teleology and the future of nature (see module 3.3). Our ecologically endangered world makes it necessary to know how nature functions and to be able to predict and control a correct natural development.

Nature as present: But just now, we usually think of nature in terms of past and present. Nature naturally takes us to the present - "this is what is, this is what I feel just now". In our contemporary culture, "this is what is" is our ultimate justification: if I am having trouble teaching good table manners to my four kids, it is because they feel natural about the way they eat, even though it often ends up with cocoa and other choice morsels smeared all over their faces. In a way, the phrase "you are a natural" means just that: you are very good at something, but just by being what you are. The way things are is good.

Nature as past: But nature can also take us to the past - "this is how it originally was". The word 'nature' comes from Latin 'nasci' which means 'being born', and this meaning survives, for example in the word 'native', which is derived from 'nature'. A native is somebody who is defined in terms of origins.

Usually, whenever there is a tension between the past and present use of nature, our contemporary culture prefers the present over the past as a kind of ultimate justification. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Malfoy says wizards descended from Muggles are unacceptable because

They're just not the same, they've never been brought up to know our ways. [...] I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families. (ch. 5)

What Malfoy is doing here is identifying "old wizarding families" with "our [native, pure] ways". These ways are, according to Malfoy, more natural than the new ways. Of course, the reader resents this, and he does so because we value nature as present more than nature as past (for a more extensive discussion of Malfoy, click HERE).

4 Nature and society

You may have noticed that whether we have discussed nature in spatial or temporal terms, we have always defined it as opposed to something, and that something looks very much like society:


1. universe
human beings
2. body
3. past & present
4. present


A human being is more socialised than the universe (1), from an evolutionary point of view, a well-developed mind comes later than a well-developed body (2), and specifying what nature demands from us and thus setting a standard to be heeded in the future may limit our natural desires in the future (3). Something similar happens with (4): justifying tradition by reference to nature - "the way it was done in the past is more natural" - may condition the present requirements of nature.

In theory, there is no need to choose between nature and society here, but notice how nature is usually evaluated in positive and society in negative terms. We like to think of nature as genuine and society as imposed, although that is not necessarily true at all. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule of thumb (remember Riemann): in Aliens, for example, the creature is more primitive than the more socialised human beings which it threatens, and we judge the former negatively and the latter positively.

This pre-eminence of nature, its division into time and space, and its confrontation with society, is of course theory, interesting perhaps, but in need of proof. A seminal text, and a seminal character of our culture is needed to offer that proof. That text is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the character Harry Potter himself, in association and opposition with friends and enemies. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn could have done just as well, yet Harry Potter is by now probably the better known of the two novels, and thus relatively easy to follow. Click on the first picture below to access this example, which is, I have to warn you, a long one. If, on the other hand, you would like to see exceptions to the rule of thumb according to which nature simply opposes society, click on the second and third pictures:




Nature reigns supreme in space & time

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone


Proximity between nature and society I

Edward Thomas' Adlestrop


Proximity between nature and society II

Waterland's Fens

5 Germanic and Latin

The English language is ideally suited to reflect this opposition between nature and society. The English language is divided above all into two camps: on the one hand, it has words which have a Germanic origin, which are older, more basic, and therefore more natural. On the other hand, it has words which are derived from Latin, are more cultivated and technical, and are therefore more social. "Go" and "thing" are typically basic, Germanic words. "Introspection" and "transmogrification" are typically complicated, Latin words. This separation has much to do with the year 1066 in which the Normans - a French people - invaded the Germanic-speaking England, and imposed Latin words and culture on the already existing Germanic.

This basic distinction between nature and society, Germanic and Latinate, is emphasised stylistically by the fact that Latin words tend to be longer than Germanic words, for Latin is an inflected language. Germanic, on the other hand, is not inflected; Germanic words are therefore shorter, often monosyllabic, and carry more power, especially when the vowel in between is a short one, or when it is accompanied by plosives (/b/, /t/, /p/).

Let's have a look at two examples, one shorter - just two words - the other longer - a passage.


Example 1

Nature and society / Germanic and Latin

"Sing" and "chant"


Example 2

Nature and society / Germanic and Latin

From A. Carter's "The Lady of the House of Love"

6 Nature and anthropomorphism

One of the difficulties we encounter when we want to talk about nature is that “Language is anthropomorphic by its nature” (Beer  1983: 50). This means that language has been written by human beings for human beings, and necessarily humanizes what it talks about. This makes it very difficult to talk about nature as different from us.

Negative appreciations of nature tend to promote the view of nature as instinct and sheer evil. Now evil is a moral and therefore human characteristic, but sheer evil is nothing, for human beings tend not to be anything in exclusivity. Positive appreciations of nature tend to promote some sort of anthropomorphically idealized views, directed towards the satisfaction of basic human needs. The biblical paradise, and all the variations on it, ranging from Milton’s paradise, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, or the German Schlaraffenland, the land of plenty, are variations on this theme. Fables, fairy tales and stories like Jungle Book present further alternatives. Click on the picture below to see an example of anthropomorphism in a poem:

Example of anthropomorphism

Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

works cited (or referred to):

Beer, Gillian. “Has Nature a Future?” The Third Culture: Literature and Science. Ed. Elinor S. Shaffer. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998: 15–27.

acknowledgement of pictures:


daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann