What is the state of nature, today? A short meditation on science, faith and the question of foundationalism

by Daniel Andersson

Ecology, it has often been noted, brings together many contradictory roots. As a discourse, it is often championed as an example of the sophisticated calculability of modern, natural science, yet it simultaneously has obvious affinities with romanticism, techno-pessimism and a certain suspicion toward progress (Worster 1994). The idea that we have now entered the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, is usually taken as an expression of the first of these two. Today, mankind is a force to be reckoned with – comparable to the natural forces we worried about in the Holocene – and with great power, as we know, comes great responsibility. It is therefore imperative that we as humans put our rational capacity to the best of uses, to create models within which causality and probability can be simulated against the background of complex and uncertain and environments. What is required, then, is a domestication of nature, as well as of the human animal: we need to know how the systems of the environment are related and how they are affected by change, in order to bring forth a more sustainable and harmonious relationship between the human and nature, one where the human, according to this superior understanding of reality, will come to recognize its own responsibility.

From Malthus (2007) through Hardin (1968), all the way up to modern analytical concepts such as “planetary boundaries” and “earth systems”, the issue with regards to the future of humanity and its environment has been how to identify and restrict the consumption and modification of nature within certain constraints that guarantees its future continuance, regardless if such constraints be defined through “limits”, “thresholds” or “loads”, or if they be global or local in scale. Despite their many disagreements on how to best identify and understand the complexities of the kinds of constraints necessary for continued human “flourishing”, what these divergent approaches to environmental science does seem to share, is an understanding of their field of work as engaged with establishing a “safe operating space” (Rockström et. al 2013), i.e. the level of human activity upon its environment that is compatible with the Aristotelean question of the good life. Even if one should remain wary as to what the normative foundations for all this talk of flourishing are (Owens 2013: 503-504), it is difficult not to agree and side with their claims that the human attitude of total disregard for its surroundings, in its strive for greater material wealth, will not only prove detrimental for future prospects of well-being, but has also disregarded the value of biodiversity and the important role it plays for the sake of realizing these future prospects.

Yet, the tension within the Anthropocene concept is obvious already at this point, as it puts the human relation to its environment in center. If ecology is the study of organisms and their interaction with the environment, where one of the foundational questions is that of self-organization, no wonder then that this same tradition has given rise to a suspicion of humanism. The problem of environmental degradation, from this perspective, is not so much that the human animal requires imposed rules and restrictions in order to domesticate its rapacious nature, but rather the opposite: that we question and free ourselves of the inherited presuppositions and practices that produces a corrupted type of human, one that imagines itself exceptional in relation to the rest of the creation. Thus, theorists and philosophers alike, concerned with establishing an environmental ethic beyond essentialist identities, so as to radically include “the environment” into environmental ethics, have identified repressive impetuses within Enlightenment rationality and its desire to render the other knowable at any price. The problems we are facing are thus conceived as being of socially imposed and domesticating practices, often in the name of reason and rationality and its desire to eradicate- or forcefully incorporate the other into the self. Instead, what should motivate the environmentally concerned citizen, is to demonstrate the inherent contradictions of modernist, Enlightenment politics, exploring ways of relating to the other outside the radically flawed framework of reason, and emphasizing the unpredictable and non-teleological nature of assemblages rather than the systematic ambitions of providing the ultimate constituents of reality.

Consequently, the environmental crisis, following the insights of Jacques Derrida, appears to describe both an event and a repetition (Derrida 2002: 72-74). On the one hand it expresses itself through its urgency, the event that is happening in the here and now: the earth increasing in temperature, environments rapidly changing, and the extinction of species. It stands as an imminent threat of our death, both for humans and non-humans, if it has not already happened as death, which is the case for some. We experience the environmental crisis as standing at a threshold, as something so overwhelming that it is unheard of ever before in history. In other words, we experience it as something unique, something absolutely singular. It is like an unidentifiable force that catches us off guard, sweeping us off our feet by demanding that we rethink our place in the universe, that is to say, rethink how we live, which includes how we act and how our actions have implications for others. It demands a radical transformation of going to the root of the issue, and that is also why it is experienced as so forceful and unique. On the other hand, the environmental crisis takes place through a repetition, the repetition of finding a foundation for making sense of what is happening and what is to be done about it; something which has always been taking place, already since the beginning of philosophy.

Just to take an example that is similar to where we find ourselves today: in 1936 Edmund Husserl worried about the crisis of European sciences (Husserl 1970). Husserl, recognizing how the broadening of the understanding of the world through the scientific mode of inquiry lead to greater uncertainty about foundational knowledge, tried to find a transcendental understanding of the world through the direct experience of phenomena, which ironically only lead him further into highly metaphysical, but nonetheless very interesting, philosophical arguments about the nature of time and consciousness. That was then open for philosophers such as Derrida to radicalize and deconstruct. But neither 1936 is the origin for the search for foundations upon which we can safely make sense of the world. The structure/event dichotomy, just like the universal/particular and transcendent/immanent, have haunted us since the beginning of philosophy, thereby making sure that we have this split- or recycled experience. The environmental crisis is therefore signifying, and paradoxically so, both a call for urgency, for our responsibility to act, and a call for absolute caution, for our responsibility to patience.

Reason against faith, or faith in reason?

It is significant, then, how closely the call for global management, according to frameworks of “planetary boundaries” or “earth systems”, resembles the Hobbesian justification of the Leviathan, or to be more precise, its rebirth in environmentalist disguise. In the 21st century it is environmental destruction that has come to replace Hobbes’ contemporary fears. Like Hobbes, the proponents of global management draw the conclusions that the fact of human fallibility requires that we abandon all our differences in terms of beliefs (whether they be religious or secular) and unite under the lead of scientific experts, if only for our own continued survival. If not, facing the environmental apocalypse that we do, our lives will most definitely be “[…] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” (Hobbes 1985: 186). Remarkably, Hobbes used religious rhetoric and imagery to justify a rational, secular monarchy, and the political implications of the concept of the Anthropocene is in many ways a revival of the Hobbesian preoccupation with questions of tolerance and accommodation of a plurality of differing and competing beliefs in the face of civil unrest – whether such unrest be the result of the loss of influence by religion upon social life, when religious or traditional justifications of authority are no longer effective or persuasive, as in Hobbes’ time, or the result of environmental degradation and its consequences for the conditions for life upon our planet, as is our contemporary cause of concern. From this point of view, environmental degradation must be understood in light of the Schmittian notion of existential threat (Schmitt 1996: 48-49), as an event with such grave implications that it requires a suspension of further deliberation in favor of immediate action.

The theoretical and political move to champion the sovereign power of the Leviathan thus appears symptomatic of a more general epistemological problem of certainty as basis for the justification of political legitimacy. If Hobbes’ account of absolute monarchy grew out of a concern about the decline of divine right as the justification of political legitimacy, the call for global management is similarly suggestive of a contemporary tension experienced between the scientific mode of inquiry and questions of certainty and foundational knowledge; in other words, about the authority of the sciences as producers of truth. On the one hand, science names the process of creating the world, of modelling and establishing the foundation for objectivity from which calculation, accounting and equivalence can take place. On the other, it also establishes radical uncertainty: there can always be more experiments to test a hypothesis, deductive work is never done, and we cannot scientifically say with absolute certainty that climate change is anthropogenic. Scientific work is that which must always be able to be tested, never beyond doubt; faith is something left to religion and theology. Hence, the scientific mode of inquiry – following Mark Devenney’s analysis of the logic of equivalence – is both the possibility for the language of rationalization: of calculation, of accounting and of equivalence; and the possibility for the language of democratization: of subjectivity, of accountability and of value (Devenney 2016). As a consequence, the main concern for many climate and environmental scientists has been how to convince the skeptics and deniers with a scientific model that is limited to speak in terms of probabilities (Wynne 2010). Facing such a challenge, it appears increasingly attractive an option to make science into scientism, by recoupling scientific doubt with religious faith. If one needs the power within thought, which makes it obvious for the people to accept it, without needing the claim to be justified, faith and belief are nothing less than necessary ingredients.

For scientists with technocratic tendencies, then, any argument against the environmentalist Leviathan is discarded as cognitive dissonance (Steffen et. al 2011: 861-862) – now caught up in the same religious rhetoric they perceive themselves to be vanguards against. For the most fervent adherents, science becomes an institution of truth comparable to any of the organized religions, where its purpose is understood as substituting our need for God with an equally all-encompassing, secular “theory of everything”, or as Schellnhuber puts it: “[…] of developing a rigorous common formalism, extracting the essence of all possible concepts.” (Schellnhuber 1999: 23). Schellnhuber, echoing Hobbes and Schmitt, understands as a necessity the emergence of a global subject, manifested by submitting itself to the hierarchy of a transdiscplinary science with the sovereignty to make rational decisions on part of the collective, in order to secure a sustainable future for all (Schellnhuber 1999: 21-22). These understandings signals the environmental crisis as an event, as the existential threat that we need to deal with immediately, where we have no more time to argue with religious and secular climate change deniers, but where it is rather a case of mobilizing a force strong enough to rhetorically overcome them.

The Leviathanization of society appears essential for survival if we buy into the pessimistic conception of human nature. The point, though, is that this conclusion should be read backwards: it is only by borrowing from the religious doctrine of original sin that the Leviathan is made into a necessity, which requires assuming a clear distinction between state and nature for the fallenness of man. Only by positing the concept of Nature as eternal, avoiding its historicization and relegating its uneasy relationship with the state to the margins of discourse, does such an account of sovereignty give the impression of being politically legitimate. Under the banner of Nature then, is placed everything that must be refused to be rendered historical: that which merely “is” (existing naturally as opposed to socially), beyond any possibility to be critically scrutinized. Precisely for the reason that Nature is posited in opposition to the social sphere of the state, in an attempt to rid it of any traces of underlying beliefs or assumptions, does such an attempt at purification exemplify the workings of ideology.

The naturalness of nature

Yet, if the environmental Leviathan has fed off of an uncritical attitude to nature, there has been an equally problematic tendency within the radical tradition to challenge such a discourse by merely adopting an inverted attitude to it. Armed with the conception of nature as essentially unnatural, this inversion of original sin has forced it to remain caught up repeating the same doctrine, similarly refusing historicization in favor of a teleology of symbiosis – overturning the metaphysics of presence by replacing it with the Aufhebung of becoming. In the middle of the 90’s, in “The Antinomies of Postmodernity” (1996), Fredric Jameson identified ecology as the field of theoretical concern, and environmentalism as that of political concern, to together signify the moment when the antifoundationalist and antiessentalist characteristics of postmodern thinking would collapse in on itself and give birth to new metaphysics of nature (Jameson 1996: 46-47). Judging by the popularity of speculative thinking and recent attempts to rehabilitate strands of realism and vitalism within continental philosophy, concerned with opening up for possibilities of speaking about the world outside the human correlate – a concern which has been quickly adopted and shared across many different disciplines by environmentally attentive scholars, for example within the rapidly growing field of ecocriticism, or more generally, as an expression of the desire to rid philosophy of the whole nature/culture dichotomy – one must concede to Jameson that his observation has proven to be quite accurate in this respect. Doing away with the last remnants of nature (and thus with the natural as such), understood as the last obstacle in its attempt to purify its formalism of any content that could be taken to be uncritically inherited presuppositions, expresses the secret dream and longing of postmodern thought. Yet, the dialectic tells us, according to Jameson, that with the victory of the antifoundationalist meta-narrative, establishing as a universal fact that narratives of nature are impossible, the only way forward for thought, to get out of the cul-de-sac that it has been backed into, is paradoxically to ascribe a necessity to a certain content – merely switching the formal framework from which the content derives its necessity: moving away from truth-politics to a Machiavellian power-politics instead.

The postmodern refutation of Nature with a capital “N” – the concept that serves the function of masquerading as the last outpost of a politically neutral transcendental, beyond any possibility to criticize its “naturalness” – must equally refute its opposite, i.e. any understanding of nature as socially constructed, since that would leave nature essentially unnatural and thus wholly empty and impotent as a concept for critique. Allowing for no in-betweens, no moderate negotiations between nature and culture, thought is lead into an impasse in which the only way out is to invoke a state of exception. The decision in this impasse, following Schmitt reading Kierkegaard, ultimately requires an external arbiter, and no justification other than her strength to see it through. The framing of environmental politics is therefore prone to being unconcerned with whether its content is self-administered and voluntary accepted or not (Jameson: 48). With Nature on the retreat, and the impossibility of rationalizing a decision on terms of its adherence to the essential qualities of reality – which means that we can no longer appeal to justice, morality or truth – the final insight of a postmodern pure formalism, where “[…] heterogeneity becomes homogeneity, in a movement complementary to that in which absolutes change becomes absolute stasis” (Jameson 1996: 32), is for us to cynically resign ourselves to a certain necessity within thought, not even requiring our belief in its right for it to be justified.

Ironically, the crisis of representation is prone to give rise to a strong belief in an “in itself” of nature, the Kantian noumenon that we are forbidden access to – and faith is precisely what it hinges on since the noumenon lies beyond any possibility of comprehension or experience. The claim that nature is unnatural thus only makes sense if one, at the same time, indirectly posits an eternal and absolute sphere of inaccessibility, as equally metaphysical as that of an assumed self-presence. Such an epistemological move does not solve the normative problem of foundationalism, but only switches its language from constitutive- to regulative principles. If the metaphysics of a given, natural and self-present Nature is criticized normatively, it is only by positing it as a product of the contingencies and rhetorics of the artificial sphere of the state, which, in turn, still implies a sublime and ahistorical Nature that such rhetorics fail to fully represent. If the fair representation of any “thing” is an impossibility, in the sense that it is doomed to forever come up short when reaching for the noumenon, the only option we are left with to pursue a normative or prescriptive politics of change, is to transcend the current state altogether.

Within an approach to philosophy critical of universals, essences and teleologies, is thus already inscribed a repetition of the same desire for purification. Moving along the hermeneutic circle from the starting-point of immanent philosophy, one will soon find oneself entertaining transcendentals, which in turn can be deconstructed, bringing one back again to the point where one started out. This diligence, as the Kant knew, requires that one continually doubts one’s own foundations for belief, but that simultaneously, always-already implied as the condition of possibility for such doubt, is the notion of progress qua reason. Thus, a critique of the environmentalist Leviathan cannot be equated with a critique of epistemic foundationalism and metaphysical essentialism any more than it can be equated with an uncritical return to them. The skepticism of Kant leaves us with a problem to be thought, but precisely by way of leaving us with a problem, thought remains open for the possibility of being rethought rather than necessitated. And so the question remains today, both as an event and as a repetition: what is nature?



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