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Remarks on Science, Epistemology and Education in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

Bruno Latour, in his book Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique (La Découverte 2017)/ Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity Press 2018), lends us a diagnosis of the Trump era, which highlights the climate debate as a war, and all other geopolitical problems as related to this war. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accords 2015 and the extensive rise of protective nationalist movements, emphasize the inertness of Modernism’s idea about Globalization and the need for geopolitics to look elsewhere in order to answer the question: What to do? Latour’s answer is to look at man’s belonging to a territory, to a ‘soil’, in order to, in the first place, describe how ‘the earthly’, the belongingness, is put together. Painstaking description necessarily precedes political action, he declares. However, what is it, exactly, that stands in need of description? From which epistemic stance can a soil be seen, and how, precisely, is the ensuing description carried out? This paper addresses these questions.

Latour argues that any effort to sustain life in the critical zone of our planet must leave behind the modern epistemologies, which both reify and partition nature and science. In order to clear the ground for a proper descriptive stance, he dismisses ‘the view from nowhere’, ‘a view from out there’ and corresponding epistemic notions like ‘naturalism’, ‘scientism’, ‘rationalism’ and ‘Galileism’.[1]

I argue that Latour’s fight against the scientific-epistemological stances he calls ‘Galileism’ and ‘the view from nowhere’ is misguided and wrong in the details. Also, at best, it is largely irrelevant for the constructive use of science in the guidance of political action. At worst it risks to impede reaching the ultimate goal he has in mind through redescribing the earthly conditions for Mankind – the goal of landing on Earth, and, perhaps, saving our planet.

The premises

I take Latour’s premise, that a geopolitical change would be powerless considered as a philosophical idea, to be true. Indeed, isn’t this a mere truism? Ideas need to be contextualized in order to get hold of people. They need transformation in order to be recognizable as ideas important to their own particular life. A number of ideas aren’t useful anymore (if they ever were) for helping us out, or so Latour thinks. Thus, there are several respects in which we are conceptually unprepared for the present situation, according to him. As he already argued for in Facing Gaia (2017)[2], we are unprepared politically, ethically and epistemologically for the challenge of the New Climate Regime. I’d like to add ‘educationally’ as a fourth dimension of our life, along which we might not be properly prepared for this challenge. Interestingly, Latour is indeed quite dismissive with respect to a potential for the educational system to contribute in a positive way (Down to Earth, p.25), although he does not justify this claim. I have a few remarks on the educational dimension, following my analysis of Latour’s critique of the scientific-epistemological stance. I leave the political and ethical dimensions pretty much untouched.

What is it then precisely Latour criticizes in Down to Earth, when it comes to epistemology and science? Latour’s earlier critiques of a number of classical perspectives in theory of science are well known. There is a long history going back to what the 1990s witnessed as the so-called ‘science wars’ between ‘realists’, who held that facts were objective, isolable and freestanding, and ‘social constructionists’, such as Latour, who argued that such facts were created by the scientific research.

These issues, however, are not at stake in Down to Earth. With respect to epistemology and science, Latour’s stance has now changed. The hot wars of science have indeed come to an end. No winners, just casualties. Latour for his part would probably say that history has proved, that he and researchers of his ilk in science and technology studies were right: With respect to, say, the new climate regime, scientific facts appear to remain robust only when supported by a culture which is trustworthy, by reliable media, and by a decent public. And nowadays there is indeed a strong acknowledgement from research communities and politicians of the social dimensions of science: dissemination of knowledge, the peer-review systems, bibliometric concerns, the importance of ‘research management’, etc.. But at the same time, most natural science pretty much unaffected tugs on in a traditional way: by endorsing realism in the belief that it carves nature at its joints, little by little accumulating facts and thus contributing to the extension of the set of true propositions.

In addition to the de facto, but not declared ceasefire in the science wars, a number of particular concerns has for Latour’s part also mitigated his bellicosity and made him change direction. Hence, for the purpose of clarifying the premises for his particular critique in Down to Earth, it is useful to look into the 2004 paper ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’. In this paper the reasons for Latour’s change are made clear. Latour expresses deep concerns and worries about the threat of an equivocation between constructivism’s sceptical attitude towards the existence of ‘pure, objective, scientific facts’ and a strong, rampant, tendency to systematically distrust matters of scientific fact for ideological reasons: “[…] dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”[3]

Latour’s concern is about the argumentative pattern, which says that since evidence is never complete, we would have to distrust scientists, even when an overwhelming majority of them tell us, that, say, largely man-made pollutants cause global warming. In the light of this danger of equivocation, Latour distinguishes between ‘matters of fact’ and ‘matters of concern’. The purpose is to demonstrate the possibility of cultivating a critical, realistic stance, which doesn’t fight with empiricism (like old days’ constructivism), but instead indeed seeks to renew it, by dealing with matters of concern, not matters of freestanding facts (cf. 2004, p.231). He asks for a new powerful descriptive tool, looking back at the long tradition from Enlightenment preoccupied with matters of fact, and, on the other hand, the recent, debunking critical attitude against ‘matters of fact-realism’ so prominent during the science wars. Latour instead wants a critique which turns around and engage with ‘matters of fact’ in order ‘to protect and to care’ about those facts which really are of our concern. By adopting and developing the Ding/Gegenstand bifurcation from Martin Heidegger[4], he attempts at pointing in a new direction for a critical thinking: “What would happen, I wonder, if we tried to talk about the object of science and technology, the Gegenstand, as if it had the rich and complicated qualities of the celebrated Thing?”[5]

Although Latour in the 2004 paper is dissatisfied with Heidegger’s strict bifurcation between Gegenstände (objects) and Dinge (things) – and at one point even re-digs the war hatchet by expressing the strong anti-realistic claim that all matters of fact, in order to exist, require a bewildering variety of matters of concern[6] – Latour implicitly admits ‘matter of fact’ an independent meaning. He now worries about ‘an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases’ (2004, p.227). Hence, Latour suggests that matters of fact are considered as processes of entangled concern instead of being debunked as fictitious. In the words of Puig de la Bellacasa, who has further developed Latour’s suggestion:

The purpose of showing how things are assembled is not to dismantle things, nor undermine the reality of matters of fact with critical suspicion about the powerful (human) interests they might reflect and convey. Instead, to exhibit the concerns that attach and hold together matters of fact is to enrich and affirm their reality by adding further articulations.[7]

These considerations are part of the premises for the critique launched in Down to Earth. Thus, the very real concern for Latour in Down to Earth is of course our home, Planet Earth. This home is of primary concern when we acknowledge what we have done to it. The climate crisis now threatens the conditions for our life ‘at home’. And what is of a very real concern to Latour is the denial of the existence of a climate change, one of the phenomena he sees as a symptom of a new, historical situation: The dawning awareness, that there is not any longer any common world for Human Mankind to share (Down to Earth, pp.1-2). The bankruptcy of the idea of Globalization, the huge amounts of refugees, the rise of nationalism, the flee towards the Local, towards colonization of Mars, towards gated communities, and the idea about self-sufficient, bio-dynamical farming, are all either symptoms of this situation or exemplifications of it.

On the one hand, then, Latour in Down to Earth puts the theoretical discussions of the science wars at rest; he leaves them in epoché, because his concerns are much more pressing. As a matter of fact, we are facing a serious climate crisis, threatening to end our lives on Earth. On the other hand, he also has reservations with respect to the adequate scientific-epistemological stance along which our concerns can and should be addressed, since the tools pertaining to our Planet Earth are of a peculiar kind. The reason for this is that the very object of research is peculiar. Our conception of ‘nature’ is wrong: “We need to be able to count on the full power of the sciences, but without the ideology of “nature” that has been attached to that power. We have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds.”[8]

The dichotomies between nature and culture, necessity and freedom, objective and subjective block the way to describe and understand the Terrestrial. The problem is, that in order to mold a politics, you need agents, but agents are not objects, external to society, which, according to Latour, they keep appearing as if we continue doing science from the epistemological stance which dictates that ‘to know is to know from the outside’ (Down to Earth, p.68). Thus, Latour’s main objection is against the conception of science where we gain objective knowledge by adopting, ideally, the ‘view from nowhere’ perspective.

This perspective is traced back to Galilei, who gave a mechanistic description of movement conforming to the model of falling bodies. The application of this epistemological perspective through the mechanical model of the whole universe treated the earth as just one planet among other planets in an infinite universe. In natural science, this is the outcome of a radical transition from a perspective on our closed world to one on the infinite universe.[9] Although the success of the mechanical model is undeniable, Latour thinks that it isn’t of much use as a tool in the description of the rich variety of processes taking place at our planet. He is not alone with this critique. A strong tradition in epistemology and theory of science going back to Edmund Husserl has vehemently argued against the idea that natural science gives us the ultimate basis for epistemology and the norms from which the understanding of our lifeworld must be taken. This critique against a ‘one-eyed view from nowhere’ and the invention of abstract ‘Galiean objects’, also briefly alluded to by Latour[10], found an extensive expression in Husserl’s late work Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie[11] and it has been a standard theme in orthodox phenomenology ever since.

In politics, Latour argues, we have seen a move away from the Terrestrial toward a problematic ideal of ‘Globalization’, to the extent that a one-eyed, single vision, conceived by a small elite, representing only a small number of interests, has replaced (the idea of) multiplying viewpoints ‘registering a greater number of varieties, taking into account a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms, and people’ (Down to Earth, pp.12-13).

Latour’s worry is of a very similar sort when it comes to the scientific tools and the underlying epistemological perspective necessary to describe the Terrestrial in order to begin anew. Instead of moving away from the earth and adopt what he calls a perspective where ‘everything has to be viewed as if from Sirius’, we must adopt a much closer view, which makes it possible to see, register and acknowledge the varieties of Terrestrial life. It isn’t as if Latour does not admit the existence of the ecological movements and parties and their attempt to raise people’s interest in and concern for ‘nature’. But as long as their concept of ‘nature’ really is the ‘nature-universe’, seen from nowhere, a conception which puts neutron stars on the same level as cells of a body, it can’t seriously motivate people and mobilize any politics, he believes:

There is no point looking any further for the slow pace of mobilizations in favor of nature-as-universe. It is completely incapable of churning anything political. To make that type of beings – the Galilean objects – the model for what is going to mobilize us in geo-social conflicts is to court failure.[12]

The flipside of this critique of science and epistemology is Latour’s defense of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Only through this particular scientific approach, we shall be able to achieve a secure scientific understanding of Planet Earth that in the end can help us out, and give us a basis for a new politics, he seems to think.[13] ANT doesn’t take up much space in Down to Earth, and it is not my intention to go into a discussion of ANT here. I am only interested in putting forth the basis for Latour’s critical remarks on epistemology and science. A number of valuable remarks and considerations in Down to Earth of an ANT kind should, however, in fairness to Latour, be mentioned in order to round off my exposition of the premises of his critique of ‘the view from nowhere’ and its preoccupation with ‘Galilean objects’. Three things related to ANT stand out.

Firstly, it is important for Latour to stress, that the only relevant sciences for dealing with a new description of Planet Earth are those that fully acknowledge that the Earth system is not a system of production, but a self-regulating system of actors reacting against other actors, including against human beings, because it suffers from the actions of these. It is a question about coming to consciousness about a much richer, varied set of objects for science by adopting a new epistemic stance towards ‘nature’: “[…] if we take the model of falling bodies as the yardstick for movement in general, all the other movements, agitations, transformations, initiatives, combinations, metamorphoses, processes, entanglements, and overlaps are going to appear bizarre.”[14]

The important – and difficult – thing is to understand the role of living beings, their power to act, their agency. The overlap of themes from Latour’s earlier book Facing Gaia, his inspiration from John Lovelock’s Gaia theory, is evident. Still, however, it should be noticed, that Latour also remarks that there is no need for adopting Lovelock’s approach as such (Down to Earth, p.76). The important point is rather the possibility of a political revitalization through the reorientation of the natural sciences if (and only if) these were ‘encompassing all the activities necessary to our existence’ (Down to Earth, p.77).

Secondly, it is important ‘to try to single out the sciences that bear upon what some researchers call ‘the Critical Zone’’. This refers to a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock, of central and sine qua non concern and interest for understanding the Terrestrial and ultimately for survival – ‘a biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folded layers’ (Down to Earth, p.78).:

It is Earth’s permeable near-surface layer […] It is a living, breathing, constantly evolving boundary layer, where rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms interact. These complex interactions regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources, including our food production and water quality.[15]

Thirdly, a new libido sciendi is required. ‘Earthseeking emancipation’ calls for other virtues than ‘weightless emancipation’, Latour claims. This means another psychological mindset, another sensitivity required for the different, scientific task and the new politics. Latour doesn’t say much about this issue, but it is interesting in itself, and I deal with it below in relation to my critical points.

Critical remarks

The central problem with Latour’s critique of science is his ambiguity in his own reliance on science and scientific results. On the one hand, he appears to endorse the results of science, and on the other denounces the epistemological stance, which is constitutive for the scientific approach, that lends him those very results.

Let me be precise. What I have in mind here is not the epistemological outlook of ‘the new sciences’ (say ANT), and the results gained from them. Not in the first place. It is rather the ‘good old science’ (let me refer to it as ‘GOOSE’), which ‘pretty much unaffected tugs on in a traditional way: by endorsing realism in the belief that it carves nature at its joints, little by little accumulating facts and thus contributing to the extension of the set of true propositions’, as I described it above. Thus, Latour acknowledges the facts about the climate condition, all the accumulating results from statistics achieved by geophysics, meteorology, biology and so on and so forth. By means like satellite-photos, ice core samples and much else besides he indirectly acknowledges GOOSE, which brings forth these facts. Facts, that are neither more nor less than examples of ‘hard-won evidence that could save our lives’. Matters of fact – of concern. Latour undoubtedly would respond to this by pointing out, that he certainly approves the obtained GOOSE facts which helped to draw our attention to the climate crisis and which justified the assumption, that it is a man-made crisis. But he would not approve these sciences as helpful when it comes to the task of doing research in the critical zone or describing the Terrestrial conditions for human life.

If the choice is between GOOSE and ANT as the scientific approach to the actors on Planet Earth, ANT wins.

But let us look more closely at the differences between the denounced ‘view from nowhere’ and the replacing stance toward the Terrestrial, Latour is arguing for.

‘A view from nowhere’ is for all practical purposes a contradiction in terms, but occurs as a useful abstract conception of the ideally, disinterested objective description of an entity. I shall return to this purely abstract notion below. But Latour also denounces concrete points of view far away from Planet Earth. He indeed transforms the abstract idea into something very concrete: The perspective of the infinite univers – ‘from Sirius’. And from that observation site, there is pretty much about the Terrestrial, the life on Earth, you cannot see and which therefore is of no concern whatsoever. Latour is of course right about that, and makes a vivid point out of the absurdity of our interest in far-away objects in an infinite space compared to the critical condition of Planet Earth, at home, right here. But if you move from Sirius towards Planet Earth, you reach an orbit of observation sites which should be of utmost importance to Latour: This is the geostationary orbit, some 35.786 kilometers above Earth’s equator, and following the direction of Earth’s rotation, from where the critical zone and much besides on our planet can be observed by satellites. Thus, favorable observation points appear in a good distance from where earthly actors live their lives; as a matter of fact observation points for those of the earthly actors we call ‘human beings’. Whereas Heidegger could allow himself to be shocked when he saw the first pictures of the earth taken from space[16], Latour cannot and should not.  Mediated by satellites we gain valuable information about the critical zone, the important stratum for the ‘proper sciences’ dealing with the Terrestrial. Latour at one point passes by this favorability of observation points from space (Down to Earth, p.78), without noticing the mild irony of our having this important orbit of outer observation posts, considered his occupation with a Terrestrial point of view. This at least demonstrates, I believe, that it is not an easy task to draw a line between the importance and unimportance of adopting a point of view distant from the Terrestrial. It also shows that facts from GOOSE might blend in and become very useful – indeed essential – for ANT or other non-GOOSE type of sciences doing research in the critical zone. Latour would perhaps admit these points, and argue, that a view from nowhere considered as an abstract ideal makes us blind in the real world to what we experience and consequently turn actors into objects, which implies mis-describing and devaluating them:

If we swallow the usual epistemology whole, we shall find ourselves again prisoners of a conception of “nature” that is impossible to politicize since it has been invented precisely to limit human action thanks to an appeal to the laws of objective nature that cannot be questioned. […] Every time we want to count on the power to act of other actors, we’re going to encounter the same objection: “Don’t even think about it, these are mere objects, they cannot react,” the way Descartes said of animals that they cannot suffer.[17]

Whether or not Latour is right in his historical consideration about the motifs for inventing the conception of ‘objective nature’, I believe that ‘the view from nowhere’ is not only highly useful (in addition to being potentially demeaning), but indeed an inevitable epistemological element of any thinking endeavor. The ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think. I take the liberty to include Latour here. ‘Towards’, but without ultimately succeeding. We are apparently able to put our respective subjective points of view in epoché in our attempts to reach a more objective understanding in a variety of human endeavors, including science, philosophy and education. But it is our fate that we never succeed in escaping ourselves completely when reaching towards an objective understanding, and we certainly know a number of examples from the history of philosophy and science, where claims about successful ‘escapes’ are made, but eventually end up as classical, prominent examples of mistaken reductions. Some of these are certainly grandiose and keep attracting us; (probably) mistaken they nevertheless are.[18] Thomas Nagel in his book The View from Nowhere from 1986[19] has argued in detail for this epistemological ‘fate’ of human beings – a kind of ‘double vision’, since we can transcend our subjective selves – although not fully so: “Double vision is the fate of creatures with a glimpse of the view sub specie aeternitatis.”[20]

Somewhat surprisingly, Latour neither refers to Nagel nor to this influential book in Facing Gaia and Down to Earth.[21]

With respect to a strive towards objectivity, I believe that it is an essential part of our pursuits of truth – that we are able to attempt at putting ourselves to a side, including being able to acknowledge another subject’s point of view. This is neither to say that we are ever able to fully succeed, nor to say that scepticism in any easy way can be rejected.

Latour’s discussion of the genesis of the conception of ‘the view from nowhere’ through the invention of ‘Galilean objects’, gives rise to another critical point, we need to take into consideration in order to understand his use of the notions ‘point of view’ and ‘vantage point’ :

From the fact that one can, from the vantage point of the earth, grasp the planet as a falling body among other falling bodies in the infinite universe, some thinkers go on to conclude that it is necessary to occupy, virtually, the vantage point of the universe to understand what is happening on this planet. The fact that one can gain access to remote sites from the earth becomes the duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites.[22]

I do not know whom the thinkers Latour is referring to here are, and I don’t understand what he means by a duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites. But notice that Latour is very concrete here in his use of ‘vantage point’. He is not thinking of vantage point in an abstract way like when we disregard the sensible properties of a physical object in order to conceive it ideally for the purpose of explaining and predicting its behavior from the laws of mechanics. However, he also remarks that: “[…] this vision from the vantage point of the universe – “the view from nowhere” – has become the new common sense to which the terms “rational” and even “scientific” find themselves durably attached.”[23]

Thus, he apparently mixes up the existence of concrete vantage points with the abstract, ideal notion of ‘a view from nowhere’. This is a mistake. He might be right, that there are points in space – e.g. the view from Sirius – that it doesn’t make sense to occupy in order to see anything of concern at Planet Earth. But the existence of an abstract view from nowhere is something differently, qua abstract – whether or not it is constitutive for our ability to think and do science. Latour thinks concretely about the vantage points, and is therefore only in a banal sense right when he claims, that even when it becomes a duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites, it will always in practice remain a contradiction in terms. Offices, labs, instruments, the entire production and validation of knowledge etc. etc. has never left the old terrestrial soil (Down to Earth, pp.67-68). Put differently, Latour’s discussion of ‘vantage points’ is not addressing the question about the genesis, power and possible constitutive role of adopting an abstract ‘view from nowhere’. He refers to Husserl as the source of the notion ‘Galilean objects’, but his discussion of these issues is consistent with the view, that Husserl’s critique of the scientific-epistemological stance ‘Galileism’ and ‘the view from nowhere’ implies a total dismissal of this stance. This is not correct, however. Husserl’s objections in Krisis were not directed against natural science adopting ‘a view from nowhere’ and the possibility of describing and explaining natural phenomena as ‘Galilean objects’, but instead and only against natural science if this is taken as the true and only epistemological basis for understanding our world and ourselves in this world.

With these remarks I have indicated where I believe Latour is mistaken with respect to his fight against certain scientific-epistemological stances. He has valuable points about our conceptions of ‘nature’, but does not succeed with the demonstration that the epistemic notion of ‘the view from nowhere’ is neither unsound nor useless. I have tentatively argued for the possibility along Nagelian lines, that the ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think and fortiori for doing science – be it GOOSE-, ANT-, or otherwise. Still, the risks of our exploitative and disparaging behavior towards nature would not be less imminent, even if my critical remarks are correct. Latour’s points about the dangers of treating actors as objects still stands.

This is where his idea about a new libido sciendi is to the point. I am not sure what he precisely means by the virtues ‘weightless emancipation’ – needed for heading toward the Global – and ‘earthseeking emancipation’, which is required if we decide to turn toward the Terrestrial. (Down to Earth, p.81) Latour probably believes, that what is needed is a different sensitivity towards those actors which before were treated as mere objects. It is a question about taking the Earth’s reactions to our actions into account (Down to Earth, ibid.). But even if we for the sake of argument grant Latour, that a redistribution of agency/actors is required, and new ‘positive bodies of knowledge’ is sought for, why should this situation involve different laboratories, instruments, and researchers (Ibid.)? What are the reasons for that? After all Latour sometimes also writes much more liberally as if many different sciences could be involved. ‘We must count on the full power of the sciences – but get rid of the ideology about ‘nature’; and ‘we have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds.’ (Down to Earth, p.65). So GOOSE and ANT can work together after all? It seems all too adventurous to call in new sciences, instruments, researchers and labs in order to address our ‘new Earth’ scientifically.

Consider a small thought experiment, in line with the idea about a redistribution of actors: Assume that plants are phenomenally conscious. Certainly, that would have an enormous effect on the discussion about the attribution of rights to them, just as much as the acknowledgement of animals’ capability for suffering and having experiences of pain had on the discussions of animal rights back in 1970s. If plants indeed have pain qualia and are capable of being consciously aware of their immediate surroundings, we will probably think very differently about what we experienced, when we went for a walk in the forest or ‘into the wild’.[24] We would think and act differently when it came to producing and consuming plant-based food and cloth, about bringing cut flowers into our sitting room etc., etc. But should we really stand in need for whole new sciences, researchers, instruments and labs? I don’t see any reasons for that.

Preparing for landing

Latour in Down to Earth is deliberately vague about what ‘an Eartly stance’ comes to. One thing is his inclinations towards ANT and the role of sciences in general. But he also, in parallel, hints at a required, new description of the multifarious ways we inhabit our soil, the conditions for the Terrestrial, for life, for living at our Earth. Latour’s tentative gesture is partially due to his invitation to the reader to co-develop this stance; to contribute in the positive, if Latour’s geopolitical diagnosis is sound. He indeed suggests the initiation of a massive, new descriptive task: “What to do? First of all, generate alternative descriptions. How could we act politically without having inventoried, surveyed, measured, centimeter by centimeter, being by being, person by person, the stuff that makes up the Earth for us?”[25]

Latour reminds the reader of an episode in the history of France, between January and May 1789, where a ledger of complaints was constructed, at the request of the king.[26] The purpose was to let the corporations, cities and estates all have a voice, all have a chance to describe their environments, conditions for living a live, their privileges, taxes etc. Latour’s idea now is that all actors in a similar way should be granted the opportunity to (in principle) define their dwelling place:

To define a dwelling place, for a terrestrial, is to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be. This holds as true for a wolf as for a bacterium, for a business enterprise as for a forest, for a divinity as for a family. What must be documented are the properties of a terrestrial – in all the senses of the word property – by which it is possessed and on which it depends, to the extent that if it were deprived of them, it would disappear.[27]

Surprisingly, Latour himself cannot refrain from coming up with his own defence of and effusive tribute to EU’s Europe as the best place, by his lights, to live right now at Planet Earth (Down to Earth, pp.100ff). This is surprising, since landing somewhere on Earth is supposed to follow after the description of the properties of an environment, the conditions for living a live, has taken place. But no attempt at drawing such a list is presented. Certainly, Latour points at moral reasons for choosing Europe as a (his?) landing site:

It is as though Europe had made a centennial pact with the potential migrants: we went to your lands without asking your permission; you will come to ours without asking. Give and take. There is no way out of this. Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are coming to Europe in their turn.[28]

But whether or not Europe and the European Union for historical reasons has a special moral obligation towards refugees and migrants, this is not a description of basic needs and properties of an individual actor, or of a type of actor, it is not ‘to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be’ (Down to Earth, p.95). Pointing towards EU and Europe harmonizes poorly with Latour’s conviction, that a redescription of a dwelling place unlikely coincides ‘with a classic legal, spatial, administrative, or geographic entity’ (Ibid.). His pointing appears more like a geopolitical manifestation, the first draft of a political programme – what he himself warns against: “Any politics that failed to propose redescribing the dwelling places that have become invisible would be dishonest. We cannot allow ourselves to skip the stage of description. No political lie is more brazen than proposing a program.”[29]

Another surprising fact is, that just as much Latour invites the reader to think and act, he airs a pessimism with respect to any role whatsoever for education toward raising a consciousness about the climate crisis and the motivation for a new geopolitics (cf. Down to Earth, p.25) . This is surprising, because it is very difficult to see a direction from which collective, massive mobilization should come, if not the educational system. I believe that Latour’s pessimism in this regard is locally grounded in the problems with the French school system (L’Éducation Nationale).[30] Be that as it may, he is also inconsistent in his attitude towards education. He notices a strong and long lasting tendency to see other peoples’ attitudes, myths and rituals as ‘mere vestiges of old forms of subjectivity, of archaic cultures irreversibly outstripped by the modernization front’. Accordingly, such cultural remains have been seen as belonging at the ethnographic museums. But he also remarks, that: ‘it is only today that all these practices have become precious models for learning how to survive in the future’. (Down to Earth, p.75) Learning about other ways to live Terrestrially takes place. If practices have become models for learning, there is no principled hindrance to educational institutions for transforming these models into their practices. And after all: When it comes to Latour’s critique of ‘the view from nowhere’, of ‘the Galilean objects’, of ‘the nature-as-universe’ – what else is this but an attempt in the direction of a new heuristics, a pedagogy for doing science in new ways? Perhaps Latour is right in his critique of science and epistemology. Or perhaps a massive, buildup of GOOSE, invariably addressing the climate crisis, really is what is needed.

Either way education will have a mandatory role to play through the concrete pedagogical tasks of reflecting and informing on our situation, developing models for how to address the climate situation in the classroom and for motivating geopolitical action in order to save our home, Planet Earth. Education lends us hope.

Whether or not the current global corona pandemic extinguishes this hope due to recession and ensuing depression – or on the contrary leaves us with a window that is open for a very short period, enabling Global or even Terrestrial reflection and political action – remains to be seen.


Heidegger, M. (1976). ‘Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten’, (Ein Spiegel-Gespräch mit Rudolf Augstein und Georg Wolff geführt im 1966), Der Spiegel, 23, 193-219.

Heidegger, M. (2000). ‘Das Ding’, in Gesamtausgabe, 1. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976. Band 7, Vorträge und Aufsätze. Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.

Husserl, E. (1976). Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie. Hrsg. von Walter Biemel. Martinus Nijhoff, Haag. (Husserliana, bd. 6).

Koyré, A. (1957). From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Latour, B. (1996). ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications’, Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381.

Latour, B. (2004). ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30, 225-248.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climate regime. Polity Press, Cambridge, Medford, 2017.

Latour, B. (2017). Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique. La Découverte, Paris.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Nagel, T. (1986). The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M (2011).‘Matters of care in Technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1), 85-106.

Shapiro, G. & Markoff, J. (With contributions by Timothy Tackett and Philip Dawson) (1998). Revolutionary Demands. A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.


[1] These themes are legio in Latour’s writings. In the present book, particularly chapter 14 deals with these issues.

[2] Latour, B. Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climate regime. Polity Press, Cambridge, Medford, 2017.

[3] Latour, B. (2004): ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30, 225-248, p. 227.

[4] The inspiration for Latour comes in particular from Martin Heidegger’s paper ‘Das Ding’, in Gesamtausgabe, 1. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976. Band 7, Vorträge und Aufsätze. Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2000.

[5] Latour 2004, p.233.

[6] Op.cit., p. 247.

[7] Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2011): ‘Matters of care in Technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1), 85-106, p. 89.

[8] Down to Earth, p.65.

[9] Latour refers the reader to Alexandre Koyré’s book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe in which this transition is described.

[10] Down to Earth, p.67, see also note 64.

[11] Husserl, E. Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie (Husserliana, bd. 6).

[12] Down to Earth, p.73.

[13] For a recent formulation of the theory, see Latour, B. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005. Latour, B. (1996): ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications’, Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381 is an attempt to clarify the basic elements of ANT and respond to objections. An early influential presentation of ANT is Latour, B. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

[14] Down to Earth, p.76.

[15] Critical Zone Observatories/ US NSF National Program https://criticalzone.org/national/research/the-critical-zone-1national/ (retrieved April 12th, 2020).

[16] Cf. The interview with Heidegger ‘Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten’ from 1966.

[17] Down to Earth, p.65.

[18] Psychologism and biologism are examples.

[19] Nagel, T. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.

[20] The View from Nowhere, p.88.

[21] A curiously fact is, that Nagel and Latour have chosen the same cover illustration for Facing Gaia and The View from Nowhere: Caspar David Fridrich’s ‘The Large Enclosure near Dresden’, a painting from 1832.

[22] Down to Earth, p.67.

[23] Op. cit., p.68.

[24] This might sound a bit more adventurous, than it perhaps is. See e.g. this call for papers from Journal of Consciousness Studies on plant sentience and consciousness: https://philevents.org/event/show/80510 (retrieved April 21th, 2020).

[25] Op. cit., p.94.

[26] Cahiers de Doléances. See e.g. Shapiro, G. & Markoff, J. Revolutionary Demands. A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1998.

[27] Down to Earth, p.95.

[28] Op. cit., p.103.

[29] Op. cit., p.94.

[30] I thank the audience at École des Arts de la Sorbonne, Université Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, on March 31st, 2019, for sharing valuable information with me on this issue.

Environmentalism Without Nature? Steven Vogel’s post-natural environmental philosophy

It is a paradox that at the same time as the public consciousness of problems concerning our relationship to nature is growing rapidly a number of scholars work to either eliminate the very concept of nature or declare it obsolete. For an immediate consideration, the elimination of this concept seems to be bad news for environmentalism. How could we even express our concerns about disastrous changes of our natural environment if nature as a concept is abandoned? Yet, some of the advocates of the abandonment consider themselves to be spokespersons for the protection of the environment. They even consider themselves to advise a more consistent and effective post-natural environmentalism.

To be sure, the concept of nature is difficult to make exact sense of. Is nature the non-human or does it include humans? Is nature the material world ‘outside’ or is it present in our own ‘core’? Is nature the harmonic backdrop for our activities or does it represent a possible threat to our existence? Is the natural good or is it indifferent to human suffering? The attempts to cancel the concept of nature has a long history in European science and philosophy (Spaemann 1994). Correspondingly, philosophy of nature has played an exposed role in philosophy (Böhme 1992), probably because philosophy of nature represented an attempt to re-involve the subject in the process of investigating nature and because philosophy of nature represented a challenge to the monopoly of natural science.

The embarrassing side of the attack on the concept of nature or on nature itself, is that it seems to render a concept like “the Anthropocene” and the idea of anthropogenic changes in nature without meaning. If nature does not exist and its concept is without meaning how could we even formulate the problem of an environment that, due to anthropogenic causes, in its development deviates from its natural course? Without an idea of natural variations of the climate and the natural evolution of the species how could we identify if the present change is man-made or not?

In this paper I will discuss philosopher Steven Vogel’s “postnatural” environmental philosophy. In his Against Nature. The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Vogel 1996) Vogel launched his project. The book gave an account of the ambiguous attitude to ‘nature’ among ‘critical’ philosophers such as Lukács, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, and Marcuse, of which, however, Lukács – rightly interpreted – seems to be closest to Vogel’s own view. Vogel also acknowledges a strong influence from Bruno Latour’s attack on the nature-society-dichotomy and from Jacques Derrida’s postmodernism.

Vogel interprets Lukács as an early constructionist. In Lukács’ very influential History and Class Consciousness (Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein) from 1923 he advances the theory that the classical priority of contemplation in epistemology has misled philosophers to believe that nature exists independently of the knowing subject. By failing to realize that knowledge is the result of an activity on the side of the subject, bourgeois philosophers have contributed to the reification of nature. To support his interpretation Vogel quotes the famous words from Lukacs’ book: “Nature is a social category” (Vogel 1996: 20).

In the same book, however, Lukács rejects Friedrich Engel’s “dialectics of nature”, claiming that the method of dialectics should be restricted to the social sphere and not be extended to natural science. In this way, Vogel claims, Lukács defends a dualism between the social and the natural and thus indirectly awards independence of nature from the social and ends up with an incoherent theory (Vogel 1996: 20).

Whereas some scholars estimate Lukács’ dissolution of the boundary between the natural and the social to be fatal to Lukács’ epistemology, Vogel goes the opposite way and claims that Lukács’ approval of a nature-society-dualism is what makes Lukács’ theory incoherent. Relieved from this dualism and the independency of nature, Lukacs’ theory could develop Marxism into a theory that helps us see reality as the result of our own activity, i.e. of our own labor, rather than being independently existing. Vogel quotes Lukács to support his interpretation: “Reality is not, it becomes” (Vogel 1996: 34).

The belief that things, reality and nature exist independently of our making is a “reification” of them and, according to Vogel, exactly what Marx described as “alienation”. The improved theory of Lukács, Vogel claims, helps us see that the overcoming of this alienation consists in realizing that nothing in the material reality, not even nature, exists non-mediated by human construction and labor (Vogel 1996: 35).

In his Thinking like a Mall. Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature (Vogel 2015) Vogel develops these ideas.


Ambivalence in the concept of nature

Vogel claims that the ambivalence in the concept of nature is not limited to Critical Theory, but as well present in common environmental discourse. His allegation is that we will get a better understanding of the man-environment-relation if we drop the idea of ’nature’. The concept is responsible for some antinomies in the environmental discourse. Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature (1990) gives a good lead to the antinomies to which Vogel refers.

McKibben mourns over the modern absence of nature untouched by human activity. Today you can find traces of human activity everywhere, even at the remotest places such as at the seabed or deep down in glaciers, but also in the air, we breathe. And since nature in McKibben’s eye is its very “separation from human society” and independence of human beings, he concludes that nature has ended. “Nature’s independence is its meaning: without it there is nothing but us” (McKibben 1990: 54). The attraction of the idea of nature, McKibben continues, is that it gives “permanence – the sense that we are part of something with roots stretching back nearly forever … A kind of immortality … some sense of a more enduring role” (67-68). The only remedy for changing our fatal actions, according to McKibben and a large number of other environmentalists, is that we should rediscover our role in nature.

Vogel swiftly points out that there are two different concepts of nature in play in McKibben’s book. One is representing nature as the opposition to human activity and culture. It goes back to Aristotle’s physistechne-dichotomy. The other concept of nature is a comprehensive concept that includes the complete physical world and is opposed to the super-natural. The first one excludes human beings from nature, whereas the second includes human beings.

Vogel’s reaction to this ambiguous concept is to ask how one can imagine being a part of nature if one is worried by the end of non-human nature. If “nature” means “nonhuman”, then the ”end of nature” through human action can neither be criticized nor prevented. It makes no meaning for an environmental theory to say that. But if ”nature” is understood as “the all”, it makes just as little meaning to say that humans can destroy nature. Furthermore, protecting nature is without sense on both meanings. If “nature” were the non-human, protection of nature would humanize nature, i.e. dissolve nature. And if “nature” includes human beings as well as non-human nature, protection of nature would mean to protect it against the super-natural, which is not what environmentalists are concerned about. Besides, if humans are part of nature on line with all other creatures, why would only the impact on the environment from one single species, human beings, be considered destructive by environmentalists?  Moreover, why should we only demand an ecological conduct from human beings and not from other animals, say from carnivores or from grasshoppers when they exercise ‘destructive’ conduct?

Either way the meaning of “nature” does not make sense, so further clearing of the meaning of ‘nature’ would not help, Vogel concludes (Vogel 2015: 25). The only way to provide environmentalism with a sound basis is to drop the concept of nature and rather devote our time to our relationship to the environment in general, irrespective of its status relative to the classical natural-artificial-dichotomy.


What is a “social construction”?

Our conception of nature, says Vogel, reflects facts about the social order, habits, mores, and worldviews, because these seem to structure our perceptions of our surroundings. The view varies historically and socially and a specific historical period can apparently display different, even contradictory conceptions of nature as we saw in Bill McKibben’s case. McKibben’s view is influenced by the concept of “wilderness” that has played a key role in American environmentalism since the days of Emerson and Thoreau. Steven Vogel’s claim is that wilderness was not something that was found, but rather an idea that was derived from the social world itself (34).

The point of declaring something a social construct is to say, it is not what it is of necessity, or – Vogel quotes Ian Hacking – it is “not determined by the nature of things” (38). Rather, it is contingent and could have been different if social conditions had been different.

At this point Vogel discusses a counterargument against social constructionism. By declaring something not natural, the argument says, one indirectly defends the concept of nature. By debunking a specific nature for being socially constructed, one unknowingly confirms that nature and the social forms a genuine dualism, implying that non-constructed nature is a reality. If one can dismantle an entity’s status by demonstrating it is not genuine natural, something else must be genuine natural. At least it must mean something to be natural, even if nothing in the world is natural. Therefore, to say that nature is socially constructed seems to be a contradiction.

Vogel’s answer to this objection is to change his main thesis from saying, that nature is a social construction to saying that it is the very distinction between nature and the social that is socially constructed (41).

The task for environmentalism, he declares, will then be to show that the distinction between what exist independently of human beings and what is made by human beings is untenable. Things can very well exist independently of us, but there is nothing in our environment, that we have not “had a hand in producing” in some sense or other. In addition, by “producing” (or by “constructing”) Vogel means literally making or building:

The world is not something we find ourselves in; it is something we have helped to make. But at the same time it is something that helps to make us: we are who we are because of the environment that we inhabit. The environment is socially constructed; society is environmentally constructed (Vogel 2015: 44).

What is central for Vogel is that human beings are present in the world and continuously change it and are changed by it due to their very existence. This means that we are intertwined with the environment and that it has been so as long as human beings have existed. Accordingly, if the active influence we have in building the environment implies that what we considered “nature” has disappeared, this happened when man came into being some 200.000 years ago.

For human beings the idea of a non-built world is without sense, and a post-naturalistic environmental philosophy should address the social processes that have built our environment. Too, it should address the problem of alienation- or reification, that is: it should find an explanation for why great parts of the environment to us seems to be ’natural’, i.e. seems unconstructed.


The practice turn in the history of epistemology

Vogel regards his campaign against nature in the context of the practice turn that was initiated by Francis Bacon and has been pursued further by modern theories of science. Bacon fought the antique ideal of contemplative knowledge in favor of an operative type of knowledge for which “nature free and at large” was less interesting than “nature under constraint and vexed … forced out of her natural state” (Bacon 1957: 29). Immanuel Kant takes up the lead from Bacon, but whereas the latter stressed the concrete, physical practice of modifying nature (“by art and the hand of man” (29)), Kant intellectualizes this activity: “reason has insight only into what it itself produces according to its own design” (Kant 1998: 109). Later G.W.F. Hegel historicizes and socializes Kant’s theory of knowledge and gives the term “labor” a central position, but it rests upon the young Karl Marx to reopen Bacon’s practice turn by interpreting “labor” as a physical, social practice. Steven Vogel quotes the 8th Feuerbach-thesis from Marx and makes it a credo for his post-naturalistic environmentalism:

“All mysteries which mislead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice” (Vogel 2015: 51).

This thesis inspires Vogel to write:

To say that we can come to know the world only insofar as we constitute it – which is to say, only insofar as we prestructure it – is to say that we know it because we build it, through the actual processes of labor, of physical acting and making, that are fundamental to who we are. It is only to the extent that we are actively involved in transforming the world that it can come to be known by us (51).

A consequence of this is that there is no distinction between the world we experience and the real world. To believe that the world is unaffected by our experience of it is to relapse into believing experience is passive and theoretical (57). In fact Vogel totalizes practice when he makes “practices …our way of being-in-the-world” (56).


The wooden house

To be is to change through our actions and it is of no use to reserve an idea of a “material substratum” that exists prior to our actions and which our actions supposedly are actions upon. To assume the existence of something prior to our actions – something ‘natural’, as it were – would be a similar move like Kant did when he insisted on the independent existence of a “thing in itself”. Such a concept of a natural or material substratum makes no sense, Vogel maintains. He recognizes the temptation to think this way, but he insists that not only is such substratum or material without any meaning, it simply does not exist.

Vogel takes his own wooden house as an illustration. The wood that was used for the construction of the house did not exist as a natural material before the construction, Vogel claims. The wooden shingles or beams come from trees that were cut by teams of lumberjacks and were originally planted by foresters forming a social practice in an ordered society. And the young seedlings that were planted themselves were the offspring of trees that were cultivated and not of nature. Hence, the material wood is marked by human activity all the way back.

Vogel rejects the logic of going back in time to find the natural material, the “original wood”, that was cut from trees that were not the product of human labor or construction. “Trees are built of other trees”, he claims and turns down what he calls the “logic of deferral, searching backward in time for som Ur-tree” (60).

Vogel underpins his case by developing his version of materialism. The traditional distinction between matter and practice is flawed, he claims. Matter is not something external to practice, rather “matter is always practical” (italics in original, 62), and would not be matter were it not the matter of a particular social practice. Accordingly, to refer to entities like “raw materials” or “natural ressources” makes no sense (63).

Vogel claims he is presenting a new type of materialism in which the idea of practice is taken seriously as physical labor or as material practice. And to prevent anybody from slipping back into interpreting “material” as some sort of noumenal substance he stresses that “material” only functions adjectival in the compound “material practice”. Practices always takes place in a “real material world” (63) and to think otherwise would be to forget what Marx made out of Hegel’s concept “labor”.


Can we really build without nature?

So far Vogel has successfully demonstrated that it is hard to point out any entity – a landscape, a species, a thing – and declare it natural. It is a fact that the world of today, at least the sub-lunar terrestrial world, is everywhere marked by antropogenic impact. And it is incontestable that if cognition is a practice there is no cognition of anything beyond practice, i.e. no cognition of anything unaffected, unconstructed or unbuilt like nature is assumed to be. Even when this is admitted, Vogel’s examination of the practice of building a house seems unplausible.

Vogel is certainly right to dismiss the possibility of tracing the origin of shingles and beams back to some “ur-tree”, and he is right to establish that the building timber we use today is the product of organised forest management. But who can deny that the material wood and the species tree have come to exist without the aid of any social practice? In fact wooden material and trees have existed since the Late Devonian some 360 million years ago, ages before human beings emerged. This is exactly why wood is considered to be  “natural”. And one could tell the same story about other natural resources. Sandstone, for instance, is a “natural” building material because it was constituted way before any social practice was established to exploit it.

One also wonder how Vogel would assess sciences like geology and evolutionary biology. He could rightly point out that these sciences are human inventions that did not originate naturally. And he could correctly claim that the stratification of geological layers or the chronology of organic evolution are pieced together from scattered findings and as such a construction. Vogel does not mention these sciences, but it is hard to believe that he would question geology or evolutionary theory as such, or that he would deny that what they refer to are natural entities.

One can dispute whether the onset of the Anthropocene is 1784 (James Watt), 1610 (local minimum of CO2 in the atmosphere), 1945 (radioactive waist all over the world), or even a few millennia after the Neolithic Revolution. But the whole idea of naming a geological epoch “Anthropocene” is to establish that the Earth’s geology, ecosystems and climate no longer exclusively varies according to nature, but as well are due to significant human impact.

Environmental philosophy should certainly not support a nostalgic search for the natural for nature’s sake. Neither should it endorse a puristic idea of nature as the untouched or endorse a strong man-nature-dichotomy. But a viable environmentalism should be able to acknowledge the former existence of a pre-anthropogenic, unconstructed world, normally denoted “nature”. And it should, at the same time, acknowledge that nature does not end with the rise of human culture and society. Only if environmentalism is able to acknowledge that there is nature before and after anthropogenic impacts, it is possible to determine which of our actions that has or will change nature to a degree that threatens our survival.[1]


Limits to the artificiality of artifacts

By failing to see the present existence of nature Vogel surprisingly seems to share Bill McKibben’s puritanistic view on nature. However, Vogel has other reasons to believe nature has ended than has McKibben. Vogel’s reasons are derived from his epistemology and its endorsement of an activistic interpretation of cognition that seems to wipe out any independence in the object of cognition. All such objects, he believes, are social constructions, i.e. are artifacts.

Vogel dedicates a whole chapter to artifacts in Thinking like a Mall. Surprisingly, in this chapter he employs the idea that artifacts always “exceed” their relation to human construction. And he even names this excess “nature”. Most frequently, however, he writes the word “nature” within quotation marks like when he states, that any artifact “always does have a ‘nature of its own’” (Vogel 2015: 104). Why re-introduce a concept he has already abandoned because he wrote it off as too ambiguous?

The motive for Vogel’s analysis of artifacts is to produce an answer to a classical objection against social constructivism, namely that social constructivism – when rejecting the reality of nature – seems to cancel all limits, whether empirical or normative, to what constructions a society might wish to realize. This objection de facto depicts social constructivism as a kind of philosophical idealism. Of course Vogel has to produce a good answer to defend his own account of social constructivism to be a kind of “new materialism”. His argument is that there are both empirical and normative constraints to what can and should be built. The first can be identified through an analysis of “builtness”, the second through an analysis of sociality.

Any building, Vogel says, encounters at some point recalcitrance, resistance or simply “hardness” in its practice. This hardness exceeds the intentions of the constructor and produces unanticipated effects, sometimes harmless effects, and sometimes detrimental effects like global warming, extinction of animals or chemical pollution of subsoil water:

The truth is that every artifact we build produces unanticipated effects, which means that every artifact has more to it than the producers intended – but to say this is to see that what an artifact is, its ‘nature’, always exceeds its relation to human intention. (And so it always does have a ‘nature of its own’). This is so because every artifact is real, and not simply an idea in someone’s head (104).

It is its nature that makes an artifact real because “nature” here is perceived as a “force … operating independently of humans” (109). Actually, we very often rely on this independent force in the material, in fact, we can never build or act without the aid of these forces, Vogel realizes. To use a hammer and a nail is to rely on, say, gravitational forces and cohesive forces working in and on the material. The same applies when we write a software program. Very often we are not aware of or, maybe, do not even know these forces, so “building an artifact requires black boxes all the way down” (113).  In this way Vogel is ready to admit that his key term, practice, is powerless had it not been for independent forces:

There could be no practices at all without the operation of forces that are beyond the ken of those who engage in them. In that sense, nothing we do could be done without (what here might be called) ‘nature’ (115).

It seems that the terms Vogel earlier used for debunking nature – terms like “building”, “constructing”, “practice” – now all turns out to presuppose nature! To secure their reality Vogel resorts to the term “nature”. And even if he warns us not to interpret the independence, wildness or “otherness” of natural forces as being their complete isolation from us, to save his materialism he needs their independence from our acting powers.

This goes as well for the practice of cognition, even if Vogel does not explicetely concede it in the present context. It is not possible to construct a cognition that is more than just an “idea in someone’s mind” without the aid of forces or realities outside the construction.

Vogel admits that he seems to deviate from his original program for a postnaturalistic environmental theory by now allowing nature a role in his theory. He assures us that nature only “plays a kind of cautionary role” or “nominal” role in his theory, and that he only sanctions the word because it reminds “us of the limits of our abilities and the need to be careful and modest about our attemots to transform the world” (125). He apparently finds a kind of consolation in the thought that “nature” is the sort of concept as Jacques Derrida’s “différance” (127) or Theodor Adorno’s “non-identity” (123) are, i.e. concepts that “cannot be spoken of” (127).

At this point it is tempting to contrast Vogel’s problems with artifacts with Aristotle’s easiness to recognize nature’s continued independence in artifacts. In the second book of his Physics Aristotle famously quotes his predecessor Antiphon’s parable to illustrate the role of nature in artifacts:

[T]he nature of a bed is the wood, and of a statue the bronze. As proof of this Antiphon remarks that, if you were to bury a bed, and in rotting it sent up a shoot, it would not grow into a bed but into wood. Therefore, the artificial arrangement in it, the result of craftsmanship, belongs to it only accidentally: its substance is the other, which of course persists continuously through these changes (Physics, I93a9-I7).[2]



Vogel’s tentative conversion to postmodernism does not hide that he fails to eliminate the concept of nature in his environmental philosophy. He needs nature’s independence and “otherness” to save the title “materialism” for his theory, but he also needs nature’s dependence on practice to save the title “social constructionism”. He can hardly have both.

Is there a moral to draw from Steven Vogels attack on nature that ends up recruiting nature to back up the attack? Will attempts to argue against nature always end in a circulus vitiosus? Is it impossible to formulate a coherent theory that ends nature?

At least a number of environmental or ecological writers commit performative contradictions, like when they in the same context declares the concept of nature void of meaning and rejects the idea of our difference from nature. Andreas Malm has showed such contradictions in prominent environmentalists (Malm 2018). And it is an open question if not Bruno Latour commits the same type of contradiction when he, after years of fighting the idea of nature, registers a new concept (le Terrestre) that more or less plays the role of the old concept (Latour 2017).

Some writers seem to realise that a coherent environmental theory demands the rehabilitation of the concept of nature. Kate Soper, Simon Hailwood, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (Hornborg 2015) are among the proponents. The German philosopher Gernot Böhme, however, is of special interest as he kind of works from the same point of departure as Steven Vogel, but in the opposite direction. Both are educated in the tradition of Critical Theory and both have committed themselves to liberate themselves from the ambivalent attitude to nature, that marks Critical Theory. Whereas Vogel has pursued this supported by a pragmatic, constructivistic epistemology, Böhme has defended a variety of the classical contemplative idea of experience, namely what he calls a “pathic experience”. Based on this he has developed an epistemology of the felt body that has lead to a realist philosophy of nature and an “ecological aesthetics” (Böhme 2019; Böhme 2010; Frølund 2018).



Bacon, F. (1963): Works I-XIV, = The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Spedding, Ellis & Heath, London 1857-1874. Reprintet: Stuttgart: Fromann Verlag.

Böhme, G. (1992): Natürlich Natur. Über Natur im Zeitalter ihrer technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Böhme, G. (2010): „The Concept of the Body as the Nature We Ourselves Are“, in: The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Vol. 24, No.3.

Böhme, G. (2019): Leib. Die Natur, die wir selbst sind, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Frølund, S. (2018): “Gernot Böhme’s Sketch for a Weather Phenomenology”, Danish Yearbook of  Philosophy 51( 2018), pp. 142-161.

Hailwood, S. (2015): Alienation and Nature in Environmental Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hornborg, A. (2015): “The political ecology of the Technocene: uncovering ecologically unequal exchange in the world-system”, in: Hamilton, Bonneuil & Gemenne (eds. 2015): The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, London: Routledge.

Kant, I. (1998): Critique of pure reason, transl. Guyer & Wood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. (1993): We have never been modern, transl. C. Porter, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2017): Facing Gaia, Cambrigde: Polity Press.

Malm, A. (2018): The Progress of this Storm, London: Verso.

Soper, K. (1995): What is Nature?, Oxford: Blackwell.

Spaemann, R. (1994): Philosophische Essays, Stuttgart: Reclam.

Vogel, S. (1996): Against Nature. The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Vogel, S. (2015): Thinking like a Mall. Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.



[1] See Soper (1995) and Hailwood (2015) for similar positions.

[2] Vogel is, of course, familiar with Aristotle’s text (Vogel 2015: 256), but he makes no comparison with his own.

The Nature-culture continuum through moving images: from Pauline Julier’s Vegetable Pompeii to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historiae

In her work (œuvre) Naturalis Historia (2017), a movie and moving images art dispositive, the artist Pauline Julier is asking: what is the “real Nature”? Enthused by the works of Professor Wang and his team on a coalmine in China, where an uncanny tropical forest appeared under the stratums engulfed by a volcano, Julier is realizing a very personal but also documentary work that is underlining multiple challenges for the environmental humanities.

Inspired by the eminent work of Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis Historiae, Julier invites us to make an inventory of the World, as he did, compelling art and science, archeology and ecology. The discovery of that forest–the oldest one before human and even animal–is also a call-up of witness, as archive and document, to mobilize our contemporary imaginaries and eventually to act.

Thus analyzing Julier’s work and through her witness, I would argue that her form of art, in the context of the everyday — that is the care of the everyday, life forms and life styles –, is developing something we could call an environmental aesthetics. With this in mind I will consider her artistic practices as proposing aesthetic and ethical-moral objects (Saito, 2007).

In considering the artist’s responsibility in the process of producing, I will explore the artwork as a gesture, and the artistic act as a projection of society’s “forms of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953; Braidotti, 2013). Seen this way the artist is an author-producer (Benjamin, 1936) of a “form of life”. That understanding of the artist is indebted to Dewey’s notion of “the experience of experience” which recognizes that aesthetic experience is not separate from the life experience (Dewey, 1934). That should be considered as the will of the artist to repair the ethical connection to the environment, which is by itself the sharing of ethic and aesthetic experience: the sharing of the sensitive is repaired. This, in turn, opens the way towards an environmental aesthetics.

Accordingly Julier shows us that it is not the scientific inventions that discovered the Nature, but on the contrary that is the change of the Nature who is contributing to the scientific research. And this is the way in which we are disposing of objects bringing us to some sacred significance. Another point that will take us to analyze the posthuman condition, as research methodology, would be to approach images that Julier is showing through the recent scholarship of Durafour and his idea of “econology”: images as “beings-in-between” making the link between human and non-human nature. I hope to demonstrate next how we, from our human position, should face and reconnect the inhuman part of images.

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Responsibility to Nature? Hans Jonas and Environmental Ethics


The experience of the increasing climate changes on the earth has given rise to gloomy predictions about the development of the entire biosphere in general and to questions about the continuing existence of biological species, in particular mankind, on earth. Since the advanced technology of western civilisation is undoubtedly – at least to some extent – the cause of the substantial changes that seem to threaten the ecological balance, man´s carelessness with nature has not only become a significant matter on the world political agenda, it has also stimulated research in the development of sustainable technological solutions. Not least, it has caused a variety of philosophical reflections on man’s fundamental relation to nature, man’s place in the cosmos. From a religious Christian perspective it has been questioned whether man’s unique position in creation implied a relation of dominion over nature or whether god has assigned to man the role of an administer of the created world. However, secularization has displaced the church from the administration of societal affairs, and this has led to the view that there is no ethical aspect of man’s use of nature but only more or less favourable consequences. Continue reading Responsibility to Nature? Hans Jonas and Environmental Ethics