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Ideas of nature

How has the concept of nature emerged? In this article, Thom van Dooren discusses the conceptual development of the concept of nature.
© UNSW Australia 2016
One of the goals of the Environmental Humanities is to understand the way knowledge about the environment is constructed, and create new understandings that demonstrate greater care and concern. In the next steps, we look more closely at the historical development of the concept of “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 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 — saying that it is in our nature to be greedy and self-serving; or caring and considerate.
The point here 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. In this view, “nature” is perceived to be 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. As you will see in the coming materials, this view of nature is problematic.

Confused natures

It is the second meaning of nature — nature as non-human — that we will focus 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).
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.
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.
© UNSW Australia 2016
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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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