Nature as a European invention

This week we will continue to lay the foundation for this course by taking a closer look at nature. But we’re not going to get out our microscopes to do this. Instead, we’re going to be looking at nature as a conceptual category.

While it is undeniable — at least to most of us — that we inhabit a world full of trees, animals, stones and rivers, how we ought to understand that world is far from clear. In particular, what does it mean to call all this stuff “nature”?

Nature is a complex term. Raymond Williams famously said that it may be the most complex term in the English language.[1] But there are two main ways in which the term is typically used:

  • nature as essence

  • nature as nonhuman

Nature as essence

When used in this way, the term “nature”’ refers to the fundamental or inner character, or proper functioning, of something. It is in this sense that people might say odd things like “the nature of a triangle is such that in all possible worlds it will have three sides,”[2] or debate the “nature” of modern architecture. We might also speak about “human nature” in this sense — sometimes saying that it is in our nature to be greedy and self serving, or perhaps invoking the concept in the opposite direction, to say that humans are by our nature caring and considerate.

Wherever you stand on the specific issue of the nature of “human nature”, the point is that anything and everything might be said to have a “nature” in the sense of essence: buildings, triangles, atoms, even people. How to define and describe these various natures — that is, the essential or proper features of a thing — will continue to be controversial though.

Nature as nonhuman

The other main way that we tend to use the term nature is to describe the collection of nonhuman entities in the world. In this sense, wilderness is often understood to be the purest form of nature. This is probably the dominant way that the term is used today.”‘Nature” is a place out there, beyond the borders of the city, untouched by human hands. From this perspective there may still be little pockets of “nature” in the city — parks or backyards — but the extent to which we will be prepared to call them nature will depend on how much they have been altered by human presence or impact.

Confused natures

It is this second meaning of nature that we will be focused on in this course, but the two cannot be neatly separated from each other. For example, if someone says that genetically modified foods are “unnatural”, what do they mean? They might mean that genetic technologies have altered the plant’s essence (understood as its genome), that they have altered its proper character or state. But they might also mean that these technologies are an imposition of human influence, a perversion of a previously, “natural” form (a form unaltered by human action).

Neither of these are very good arguments against genetically modified organisms, but they do illustrate the difficulty of making a solid distinction between nature as essence and as nonhuman (this is not to say that there aren’t other, better, arguments against these technologies). This example also highlights the important political and ethical work that this term often does. As Raymond Williams noted:

“In some serious argument, but even more in popular controversy and in various kinds of contemporary rhetoric, we continually come across propositions of the form “Nature is … “, or “Nature shows … “, or “Nature teaches … “. And what is usually apparent about what is then said is that it is selective, according to the speaker’s general purpose.”[3]

To call something “unnatural” implies that it is not proper, not how it ought to be. To be called “natural” often implies the opposite. We will return to this point in more detail a little later.


The key to understanding how “nature” (as nonhuman) functions in the modern world is appreciating that it is a strongly dualistic term. At the simplest level, a dualism is the conceptual division of something into two distinct parts. In Western thought, nature has tended to be understood as dualistically opposed to culture or humanity. Nature is those parts or places that are (relatively) unaffected by people.

This way of dividing up the world positions humans as fundamentally outside nature. As William Cronon notes, from this perspective: “The place where we are is the place where nature is not.” [4]

For those of us raised and educated within this kind of framework it seems entirely obvious, natural even. How else could we understand things?

It turns out, however, that many other cultures do not, and have not, divided the world up in this way. The nature/culture dualism is the product of the very particular cultural history of the West.[5][6][7] It is not “true” in any meaningful sense, it is just one way of understanding things — and potentially a very problematic one. The environmental philosopher Val Plumwood has called the nature/culture dualism “the foundational delusion of the West” and has argued that it is a “dangerous doctrine, strongly implicated in the environmental crisis.”[8]

How did we get here?

If this is the case, if the nature/culture dualism is a product of a peculiarly Western or European cultural history, then how did we happen to get here? How did the West end up with this particular way of dividing up the world?

The history of ideas is a complex field. Even once we appreciate that our understanding of “nature” is just that, a particular understanding, not reality itself, teasing out how we arrived here is difficult. In all likelihood there is no single, simple, root cause.

Plumwood calls this dualism “the love-child of the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality mated with the much younger circumstance of human experience of commodification in the global city.”[9]

Her reference to the city points to forms of human life that are increasingly alienated from (many) nonhumans. While we might still interact with urban wildlife and small “green spaces,” fewer and fewer of us spend serious time, or earn a living, interacting with those parts of the world we call “nature.” From inside the city — in contrast to life as a gatherer/hunter, on a farm or in a small town — it becomes much easier to see nature as something that exists “out there,” separate from human life. When children don’t know that milk comes from cows and think that bears make honey, this alienation seems particularly acute.

But the first part of Plumwood’s quote points to a deeper history of dualistic thinking: “the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality.” What is this?

There are probably many aspects to this narrative in the West, many strands that have come together. The philosopher J. Baird Callicott sums up the key ones in the following quote:

“The first and most fundamental feature of the modern idea of nature is a sharp dichotomy between man and nature — a dichotomy that is all the more radical because it is a feature of both wellsprings of the Western intellectual heritage. In the first book of the Bible, alone among all the other creatures, God makes man in His own image, giving him dominion over and charging him to subdue the earth and all its denizens. In ancient Greek philosophy, man is set apart from nature because he alone among the animals is supposed to be rational. In the late medieval and early modern periods, thinkers as different from one another as Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes synthesized these two strands of thought, the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman. Thus the man/nature dualism in each augmented the other. And Descartes’ contemporary, Francis Bacon, set the modern agenda for the scientific conquest of nature by man. If we can discover the working principles — the divinely ordained laws — of nature, he presciently pointed out, we can bend it to our will.”[10]

And so this, in a nutshell, is what we tend to mean by the term “nature,” and how it is that we have arrived at this understanding. But is this an accurate or helpful way to understand and divide up the world?

– Thom van Dooren


  1. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Revised Edition) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
  2. Hide Ishiguro “Leibniz on Hypothetical Truths,” in Leibniz: Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 373.
  3. Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), 70.
  4. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).
  5. Philippe Descola, In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia, trans. Nora Scott (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  6. Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London & New York: Routledge, 2000).
  7. Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, eds., Nature, Culture and Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  8. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London & New York: Routledge, 1993).
  9. Val Plumwood, “Nature as Agency and the Prospects for a Progressive Naturalism,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 12, no. 4 (2001): 26.
  10. John Baird Callicott, “La Nature est morte, vive la nature!,” The Hastings Center Report 22, no. 5 (1992).

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: