Thursday, January 2, 2014

What is nature? John Wilkins says...

John Wilkins has a typically lucid post addressed to the question: What is nature? He's not himself trying to come up with an answer, but rather is interested in how the question arose. After suitable citation (including one of his favorites, J.S. Mill) Wilkins arrives at:
The “Arcadian” vision of nature was something for the benefit of humanity, decreed by a benevolent deity. So our separation from nature was based upon our agrarian, civilised, theistic vision of ourselves.

In recent years, we have seen a trend to “naturalise” humans, however. We have discovered the natural causes of mental activities and failures, of our physiology, our evolution, and even our abilities to know the world.
He concludes that "In the end our idea of nature is incoherent or needs to be revised to be coherent." And, crudely put, object-oriented ontology rides that incoherence.

Let's conclude this brief note by looking at his opening paragraph, where he tells us there are two kinds of naturalism: "ontological naturalism (the view that all that is, is natural) and methodological naturalism (the view that all that can be known can be known via natural methodologies such as scientific method)." His post is about the former.

As for methodological naturalism, it is in THAT sense that I talk of a naturalist literary criticism. I am not making an ontological claim that literature is more or less just like atoms, thunderstorms, and toads – though, who knows, it might be – but that we can understand how literature works through natural methodology. Roughly speaking, both the literary Darwinists and the cognitive rhetoricians and poeticists espouse something of a naturalist methodology as well, though one that doesn't emphasize description. And the Darwinists may well espouse ontological naturalism as well; they probably do. 

But that is only speaking roughly. More precisely...well, that's likely to go on and on. Maybe later.


  1. Hi Bill,
    Longtime reader and lurker here. I enjoyed your post but your remark about object-oriented ontology came out of left field. I checked the article and there was no mention of it in there, so I've concluded that your mention of that ontology was of your own conclusions.

    Could you say more about how you find that object-oriented ontology rides the incoherence of nature? My initial thoughts for a possible set-up here would be that that philosophy emphasizes the weird and strange, the "alien" as it were, doubting the supposed coherence or intelligibility of "nature" as a master category, for "nature" is often taken to be a romantic notion that is untrue to or non-compatible with the more "cosmicist" interpretations of the natural. If anything "Nature" (capitalized "N") is subjectalized and anthropomorphized according to specifically human - and usually cushy and positive - categories and expectations. On the other hand, to render the natural as the *opposite* of that (implicitly strange or inhuman, non-subjective, non-experiential, etc. etc.) seems just as reactionary and problematic.

    Of course, there are many, many problems with all of this and I have some fairly nuanced arguments to it in response (mostly in an article forthcoming, titled "Speculative Naturalism: A Bleak Theology in Light of the Tragic"), but was wondering what you thought.

    Let me also preface, though, a few things. I haven't seen any real *arguments* for my above impressions of "OOO's" thoughts about the natural or nature as any kind of category, and I really don't find it to be a coherence or really active "philosophy" at all, to be honest. Finally, because of its lack of argumentation or philosophical sophistication I've found their remarks about nature to be largely uninteresting (to be frank, sorry). However, the article that you cited was argued well enough and very interesting, so I thought to inquire about the connections that you were drawing.

    Any words of insight appreciated,
    Leon / after nature

  2. And interesting set of remarks, Leon. In mentioning OOO I was just shooting from the hip. I didn't have anything well-thought out, and still don't.

    FWIW, I like Wilkins a lot – I've been reading him for years and have corresponded with him a bit – and find it interesting to read him and OOO against one another. Wilkins is a philosopher of science and certainly in the analytic tradition; he's also something of a Feyerabendian (!). He's a reductionist and yet in some ways at least some of his ideas seem congenial to some OOO tenets.

    "...that philosophy emphasizes the weird and strange..."

    Yes, and I regard that as a weakness. They may be arguing against certain versions of the 'the natural,' but they very much need to have those versions around in order to get their rhetorical motors in gear. So, while Wilkins points out that our notion of nature is incoherent OOO can't do just that.