The "liberation of nature" as an answer to the ecological crisis

Author: Max Gottschlich

The recent examination of the objective repercussions of an uninhibited technical-practical relationship towards nature in the form of ecological crises poses an enormous challenge not only to economics and politics, but first and foremost to thinking. For the actual problem cannot be solved directly at the level of action. It is not enough to demand new standards for action to avoid unpleasant consequences and to secure nature as a "resource" for future generations. In utilitarian calculations we are still within the field of technical-practical conduct, the reduction of nature to its use and utility. Part of the problem is also the current spread of a quasi-natural-religious ideology, which comes dangerously close to the archaic idea of the sacrifice of man for the good of nature. In this ideology, the scientific and technical understanding of nature which reduces nature to a system of functional matters of fact (Wittgenstein) strikes back at its originator, in that man places himself under the dominion of this functionality and judges himself to be a dysfunctional element that may have to be eliminated.

Rather, the time now has come for what Hegel calls "the liberation of nature" (Befreiung der Natur). What is meant by this is not a call for “actionism”, but something much more radical: a revolution of consciousness. This consists in taking a step away from the technical-practical understanding of nature, by means of which we transform nature into the realm of a transparent world of objects in which any alterity is excluded, and move towards a thinking of nature that understands nature as another self in propria. Only this could open the way for a truly new, spiritual culture of respect and thus experience of nature carried by the fact that – to borrow a notion from of Wilhelm v. Humboldt – we experience "the most intimate relationship" (innigste Verwandtschaft) in the strangeness of the gestalts of nature. But the path to a sympathetic conduct is not easily affordable. Appeals for emotional identification with nature - which is what representatives of a deep ecology demand - are not enough. For in nature as an object of exact science I find myself as the understanding (Verstand) in terms of Kant, but not as a human being. Hence what is needed is a revolution in the concept of nature itself. But this can only be achieved by those revolutions in the concept of thinking itself that are linked to the names of Kant and Hegel.

In the introduction to his philosophy of nature, Hegel describes the breadth of our relationship towards nature: there is the "standpoint of finite teleology“ (endlich-teleologische Standpunkt), which is well known, but therefore far from being recognized in its presuppositions. What Hegel has in mind here is the technical-practical standpoint which is ultimately determined by the striving for immediate self-preservation of man. The exact natural sciences are based on this standpoint, for the knowledge of domination gained from it aims at the transformation of natural things into useful objects – useful for the purpose of furthering freedom. Here a first emancipation of freedom in relation to nature expresses itself- the emancipation from and towards nature. Here, freedom is interpreted as non-nature, as being in opposition to nature. Only man, knowing that he differentiates himself from nature, can use nature for his purposes. This enables the colonization of nature through the cunning of technology, in which the power of nature is turned against itself. Man has this right because in him nature has come to the consciousness of itself. But the hubris of this position is that consciousness considers itself to be a power detached from nature. Nature now appears only as a barrier against freedom and against this barrier the "will to power" (Nietzsche) pushes further and further.

The success in the progressive pushing back of this barrier feigns all too easily that a tremendous price has to be paid:

On the one hand, we pay the price of an extreme alienation from nature. Nature no longer appears as a nature manifesting and revealing itself (in terms of Aristotle’s physei on). What remains is nothing but a modelized system of appearances within space and time, a sphere in which the determining understanding, the understanding in terms of Kant, continues to establish and to maintain its self-identity. This world of objects is methodically deprived of any real alterity, any real otherness. In his „Critique of Pure Reason“, Kant not only showed the necessary logical presuppositions of this standpoint. The notorious restriction of scientific knowledge to models of phenomena together with Kant‘s positing of the thing in itself as inaccessible already indicated this price of an extreme alienation from nature as well. And it is not by chance, that we are still in desperate need to understand the real horizon opened up by Kant’s First Critique. It is through Kant’s reflection that we can begin to understand the real source of our alienation from nature as actuality, as an other self. This alienation from nature is a necessary consequence of the knowledge of domination. “Nature” qua object can only be fully controlled if we transform it into a functional element within a system of spatio-temporal appearances, but not at all as a self-manifesting being.

On the other hand, this point of view, namely the knowledge of domination or, as Hegel puts it, the finite teleological standpoint, alienates thinking from itself: the logical form understands itself solely as a function for the production of objective determinations (gegenständlicher Bestimmtheit). Just consider the prevailing understanding of logic as formal logic. Thinking is understood, following Wittgenstein, as a mechanical, automatable process of deduction - and formal logic is understood to guarantee objectively valid propositions, as if Kant has never drew our attention to the fact, that formal logic by itself cannot guarantee its successful application onto a system of objects in terms of exact sciences. Nor can formal logic as such justify the conditions of the possibility of this application. It is little wonder, that the merely technical self-interpretation of thought is taken for granted nowadays to such an extent that it is hardly ever questioned. What is at work here is a self-interpretation of thinking that is still to be enlightened about its presuppositions and its limits. It is a thinking, that expresses just a particular level of specialization, a specific way of understanding the unity of subjectivity and objectivity – a thinking that by no means can claim to capture the full scope or the entirety of thinking, of thinking as the active origin and genesis of all subject-object relations. In this way, the knowledge of domination falls back on man himself. This happens within consciousness: as the reification of the logical form and the human being. Philosophy could contribute a lot to understand both the presuppositions and the price of this „finite teleological“ standpoint with regard to nature if it finally left behind the mistaken ontological and epistemological interpretations of Kant and if philosophy, to follow Bruno Liebrucks, began to interpret the "Critique of Pure Reason" for what it is: namely the first logical elucidation of all knowledge of domination.

Kant asks for the conditions of the possibility of scientific and thus predictable experiences that can be articulated without contradiction. His fundamental question is this: What are the conditions of possibility a priori of science as applied formal logic? The answer to this question is a system of possibility conditions that ensures and enables the scientific encounter with nature.

Here we begin to see the actual, logical dimension of our problem: As Bruno Liebrucks shows, the question we have to ask, is regarding the scope of the relevance of formal logic for knowledge. What does this question reveal? The scope of its relevance for knowledge only extends insofar as unambiguous, contradiction-free objective determinations can be established with it. With this the ultimate Procrustean bed for our understanding of nature is established. The limit of this standpoint becomes apparent in the way Kant in his Third Critique necessarily struggles with the problem of the organism as inner purposiveness (Naturzweck).

In contrast to formal-logical ontology, to Kant, and even to Schelling, Hegel is able to speak of the living in a logically sound way due to his revolution in the concept of logical form. This revolution in short entails: the “concept” (Begriff) is self-moving, self-determining identity of the subjective and objective. Hegel thus renews Aristotle's understanding and approach: nature is understood in such a way that it manifests itself ultimately as a self, as a living individual (phýsei on). Hence, Hegel emphasizes that the adequate concept of nature cannot be attained unless we understand nature in its totality as presence of the „idea“ (Idee), a presence of actual inner purpusiveness („wahre teleologische Betrachtung“). This allows us to think of "nature as free in its peculiar vitality" („die Natur als frei in ihrer eigentümlichen Lebendigkeit“). Here, practical interest recedes in favour of a genuinely theoretical interest in the sense of the Aristotelian theoría. The gaze is directed to the inner purposiveness of nature, nature as a living totality (the concept of an „ecosystem“ is only an abstract representation of this thought).

However, it is at this very point where we have to face the most demanding challenge for thought, a challenge inherited from Kant: With what right can, rather must we refer to inner purposiveness – not merely understood as an „As if“ in terms of Kant’s Third Critique, but as existing inner purposiveness, without falling back behind Kant into some naive ontology? This question must remain aporetic for all approaches to natural philosophy and bioethics (e.g. Hans Jonas) as long as they do not, like Hegel, think the Kantian logical revolution to its very end in the concept of logical form. This means, to be brief, that logical form ultimately has to be understood as a self, as a self-moving, self-determining form, as form that generates its content in its self-movement. Unless we do not arrive at this understanding of logical form as entelechy, which is the very core of dialectical logic, we have no systematic ground that would justify a simple proposition like: this individual here exists as a living being. In order to understand the inner, moving purpose of nature, it is necessary to pass through Hegel‘s logic. This inner purposiveness is nothing other than the highest category of this logic, the "idea" (Idee): the correspondence itself, the totality of reason. Nature is no longer conceived as a Kantian existence under laws, as the material of subsumption guided by reason, but it is the presence of reason (Vernunft) – admittedly in the mode of otherness, of the exteriority in space and time. But nature is another self in that it achieves the overcoming of this exteriority by successively forming richer forms of self-relationships - from the physical and chemical object up to the organism, ultimately to that point where nature opens its eyes in the human self, the I (Adorno). This approach is the true teleology of which Hegel speaks. It is here, where self-relationships are established - beginning with the movement of the physical object up to the organism and its drives – that we encounter nature as presence of reason.

Nature is thus here conceived of as an integral context of life to which we do not merely belong in some superficial or external manner. This is what the perspective of the first emancipation implies. But nature is not external to freedom. This is why Hegel states the following pivotal words right at the beginning of his philosophy of spirit: the I posits itself as I - but "at the same time only as coming back from nature" (zugleich nur als Zurückkommen aus der Natur). Only in its return (Zurückkommen) from nature can consciousness gain concrete, individual identity. This thought goes well beyond Kant and Fichte. In other words: There is no direct, immediate self-relationship. Human self-relationship constitutes itself only via the detour of an engagement with the world. Our self-relationship cannot be separated from the relationship to the other, to nature and the other human being. This is not only evident in the most immediate forms of spirit in the sense of Hegelian anthropology (for instance the human body as the immediate presence of the spirit), but it persists at all levels. I may only point to the involvement of nature where the realization of freedom is concerned. Without the help of nature, freedom as "right" in Hegel's sense, i.e. the self-affirmation of freedom, does not attain any existence – this includes abstract right, property, and ethical life (Sittlichkeit) in terms of the family, the system of needs, the economy, and the state.

Once this has been understood and acknowledged, the liberation of nature – which is a liberation within consciousness – is accomplished. This means to overcome the hubris of freedom to see the human being as a completely detached power over nature. We can call this standpoint the second emancipation. It is not an emancipation from nature any more, rather the emancipation from the first emancipation. Here it is recognized that nature is not merely an external means, but a necessary means, that is to say nature cannot be separated from freedom itself as the end. According to Hegel, freedom is the negation of nature, which can only have its existence through nature. Only this insight enables a free appreciation of our inner and outer nature, a view in which the immediate need is silent. It is a way of "being with oneself in one’s other" (Beisichsein im anderen).

From this ensues the duty to respect nature as this very basis of our existence – which is the flip side of the human being’s right to use nature in order to actualize freedom. This respect goes beyond that what can be attained by means of Kant in terms of a respect that is mediated by the self-respect as a rational being. Following Hegel, this respect is nothing but a consequent expression of the insight into the nature of human freedom: that being with oneself cannot be separated from being with one‘s other – including nature. Only this kind of respect is the determinate negation (bestimmte Negation) of the will to power and its imperative: you should because you can. Not everything that is colonizable in nature should be colonized and utilized as a resource. Nature has - in the then present consciousness of its liberation - gained a right to a space of self-being, just as its use is in principle protected from the abyss of gluttony. It is on the basis of this consciousness, that the question of what we can and should refrain from in our relationship towards nature would have to be considered.

Picture: "'Italianate Landscape with an Artist Sketching from Natur"', oil on canvas painting by Jan Both, c. 1645-50. Source: Wiki Commnos

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