Dark Vitalism 0/10: Taxonomy of Nature

20Feb10

Before going through the 10 points as noted before I thought I should start with a brief taxonomy of nature as a helpful starting point.

The Classical view of Nature, that of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics which was generally accepted up through the Medieval tradition, functioned as a kind of inarticulate dynamism with entities such as Fate or the One working as the ontological engine. This dynamism centers on the question of a fundamental cause, or set of causes, of Aristotle’s four causes (material, efficient, formal, and final), or of Plato’s world soul following from the demiurge. In the classical view, nature is something that humans are immersed in without nature existing as a separate being. In this sense, the question of being and thinking is obscured.

Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle’s inauguration of the modern conceptualization of nature replaced the focus on causes and teleology with that of laws. Boyle also marked the transition from alchemy to chemistry. Bacon and Boyle’s formalization was an attempt at limiting overly speculative takes on nature following from the classical/scholastic/medieval tradition. Through empirical observation Bacon and Boyle attempted to rid the concept of Nature of its metaphysics replacing it with the tools of observation and the methods of rationalism. This conception is also further developed by Hume.

Following from these laws Descartes and Malenbranche set up Nature as an ideal exteriority or ideal being. Descartes replaced the traditional dyad of matter and form with extension and rejected the finalism of earlier forms of nature as producing objects towards a particular end. Malenbranche’s occasionalism argued that God was the causal link between objects and phenomenon. Spinoza’s formulation indexes the divinity of Malenbranche whereas Leibniz’s monism made use of the laws of modern science.

Kant’s critical work which threw down the gauntlet between the empirical and rationalist philosophies, put forth a Humanist conceptualization of Nature, or of Nature as Construction. Kant’s Nature functioned simultaneously as a grand noumenon (a seemingly infinite being, indexing the rationalists, and unknowable because of the limits of human thought and not infinite in itself) and as phenomenal in that it is sensed as an extension of phenomenal objects (thereby indexing the work of the empiricists).

Schelling’s ‘Romantic’ form of nature attempted to undo the formal division of nature by Kant which Schelling saw as ignoring the non-phenomenal aspects of nature (namely fields and forces). Whereas Schopenhauer saw Schelling as merely muddying the difference between Kant and Hume, Schelling was performing a Kantian critique on Kant himself. Where Kant critiqued Hume for not providing an empirical ground for the non-empirical capacity of receiving impressions, Schelling likewise critiqued Kant for being unable to provide a transcendental ground for the transcendental ideal of the subject itself (ZO, 73).

Following the romantic conceptualization it becomes increasingly difficult to discern a clear conception of nature following Schelling. The explosion of phenomenological thought following the second world war has an uneasy relation with nature, complicating Kant’s humanist point that nature is predominantly an effect of ourselves. In Husserl for instance, Nature becomes a totality of objects linked by some obscure field of becoming or blanket of sense. The weak correlation between thought and being in Kant is exacerbated becoming Meillassoux’s strong correlationism so that even the indeterminate aspect of nature becomes only a correlate of thought.

This increasingly vague metaphysical framing of nature coincided with the rise of Scientific Naturalism, or the view that Nature consists purely of observable phenomenon, could be seen as furthering the project of the empiricists and rationalists by eliminating the necessity of metaphysical scaffolding in favor of scientific methodology. Nature, as a contemporary concept, is either elided as unnecessary in the face of scientific progress (the progeny of empiricism and naturalism), divine while simultaneously actual (a combination of the worst aspects of the ideal and romantic) or always-already constructed by the human subject without any natural or real core (a mix of the worst aspects of the ideal and critical stances).

A strand of philosophy often thought to bypass these formulations is the process philosophies of Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead. While these thinkers focus on processes subsequently linking their philosophies back to the dynamism found in the classical conception of nature, they are divided from one another on major points and, as I will argue, do not grasp nature in its processive functioning. The reasons for this are the various anthropocentric groundings they utilize such as Bergson’s emphasis on sense and affect or thinking over nature in terms of process, Deleuze’s virtualization of immanence (over actual fields) and Whitehead’s eternal objects all which subordinate the processes of nature to the thought of the subject.

In all aforementioned contemporary conceptualizations of nature, as well as the process philosophies mentioned above, the following issues remain:

1 – Thought remains fundamentally unnatural and must be guaranteed through the transcendence of the subject (phenomenology), of thought (naturalism, Bergson), of the virtual (Deleuze), or of the spiritual/eternal (Whitehead).

2 – Nature is largely determined by its products (Extensive being, Bodies, Objects, empirical data, Laws) and not by its productivity.

3 – As a result of these two points nature remains a correlate of thought in Meillassoux’s terms, structured by and according to human subjects.

The statement which serves as the refutation of these limitations as well as a call for the rehabilitation of the philosophy of nature is the following: Nature is simultaneously a productivity and an infinite set of products responsible for the generation and capability of human subjects and their capacity to think. This assertion heavily indexes the work of Schelling as well as the dynamism of the classical conceptualization of nature. Meillassoux’s critical remarks on Schelling will addressed in the next entry in regards to nature’s un-pre-thinkability.

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2 Responses to “Dark Vitalism 0/10: Taxonomy of Nature”

  1. 1 Fabio Cunctator

    Interesting starting point Ben. I like this exposition you are planning to do, for I was curious about your dark vitalistic work. On a side note, even if not directly related to your work, you might be interested in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundation of Modern Science, which is a greatly argued histrical work about how early modern science was influenced by the doctrine of original sin and the perverted nature of humanity (where epistemological error=metaphysical inheritance of sin).


  1. 1 Abyss radiance: Toward a Dark Realism | noir ecologies

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