An unnatural divide

Flattening the natural and artificial

Philosophers have divided the natural and the artificial since ancient Greece. But do we know what we mean by that distinction, and where do humans and their actions fit? Graham Harman sets about flattening this divide. 

The drawing of a sharp distinction between the natural and the artificial goes all the way back to Ancient Greek philosophy. In Aristotle’s Physics there is a famous distinction between natural and violent motion: celestial bodies naturally move in a circle around the earth, terrestrial bodies move downward towards the center of the earth, and violent motion is whatever departs from these expected processes due to the intervention of an outside cause.

And so things remained until modern natural scientists reduced the difference between celestial and terrestrial motion to a universal physics, one that also erased the distinction between natural and violent motion, given that all forces are now said to be of the same kind. Hence, the difference between natural and artificial forces has little place in modern physical theory, which flattens these forces onto one and the same level of significance.

This reliance on nature as the difference-maker between the real and the unreal is characteristic of the entire philosophical tradition launched by Aristotle.

The same sort of thing happens with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, though here the distinction is somewhat cloudier. While for his teacher Plato the ultimate reality was the perfect forms of things, or universals, Aristotle developed an inverted theory in which concrete individual things are the most real that exist. Universals such as “cat,” “triangle,” or “tree” are for Aristotle derivative compared with the numerous specific cats, triangles, and trees that one encounters in experience. As a side effect of this difference, Plato’s emphasis on recollecting the forms already known deep in the mind is replaced by Aristotle’s prioritizing of sense-experience and a more secular version of memory as the repository of what has been learned in one’s lifetime on the earth. For the individual things of the world, Aristotle typically uses the term “primary substance,” or just “substance.” As he puts it in his Metaphysics: “[I]f substance is done away with, then all things are done away with.”

But what, exactly, is allowed to count as a substance? Here Aristotle seems to change his views slightly whenever he speaks about the topic. In Book Eta, Chapter 3, he stresses that everything is equally a substance: Socrates is not more a human than Bucephalus is a horse or the sun is a sun. This is countered by other passages where he speaks of substance in the comparative terms of “more” and “less.” For example: “substance seems to belong most evidently to bodies. That is why we say that animals and plants and their parts are substances, and also natural bodies, such as fire, water, earth, and each thing of this sort…” Elsewhere in the Metaphysics he is more decisive in calling nature the criterion for what counts as substance, saying that the things that everyone agrees are substance are “the natural ones– for example, fire, earth, water, air, and the other simple bodies, then plants and their parts, the animals and the parts of animals, and finally the [sky] and the parts of the [sky].”

Indeed, this reliance on nature as the difference-maker between the real and the unreal is characteristic of the entire philosophical tradition launched by Aristotle. His greatest modern heir is surely the German polymath G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716), who was not only a celebrated philosopher, but the co-inventor of calculus, an early proponent of life insurance, and a trailblazing student of Chinese culture.

For Leibniz, there was a stark difference between substances and what he termed mere “aggregates,” with nature the ultimate criterion of what counts as the former. As Leibniz put it in his colorful correspondence with Antoine Arnauld: “the composite made up of the diamonds of the Grand Duke and of the Great Mogul can be called a pair of diamonds, but this is only a being of reason.” For something to be “only a being of reason” means that it exists only in our mind rather than existing in its own right in the world. Diamonds are actually a strange example for Leibniz to use, given how much artificial processing goes into transforming a raw diamond from a mine into the sparkling gemstone often seen on a golden engagement ring. Nonetheless, Leibniz allows each of these processed diamonds to count as an autonomous unit, but treats the arbitrary combination of two such diamonds as nothing but an aggregate. An aggregate is something that counts as one only in the mind, not in reality– by which he really means, in nature. He tries to prove this by reducing the alternative hypothesis to absurdity: “If a machine is one substance, a circle of men holding hands will also be one substance, and so will an army, and finally, so will every multitude of substances.”

For a person to glue two diamonds together evidently strikes Leibniz as a form of metaphysical and not just criminal fraud.

Apparently, we are supposed to find it automatically ridiculous that a machine could be just as real as a pine needle, a circle of men as genuine as a single man, or an army as robustly existent as a school of fish. Leibniz closes his reflections with the example of a chain: “why should several rings, interlaced so as to make a chain, compose a genuine substance any more than if they had openings so that they could be separated?” (1989, 89). He never seems to consider that even the latter case, a chain whose links contained openings, might also count as a real substance. What all the negative examples of non-substance given by Leibniz share in common is that all show the signs of human artifice. For a person to glue two diamonds together evidently strikes Leibniz as a form of metaphysical and not just criminal fraud.

Now, it seems to me that “nature” has no place at all in this discussion. Humans are part of the universe just like mountains, and therefore I see no reason why the human shaping of gemstones should be any less real than when it is done by purely geological forces. Once the gemcutter finishes polishing a specific stone, it is released into the cosmos for millennia to come, long after the death of the cutter and perhaps the extinction of our entire species. Dogs seem to be part of “nature,” yet nearly every one of their breeds was constructed by human activity, though dogs remain real animals as much as the species of creatures never altered by human activity. Yes, there may be certain contexts in which the difference between natural and artificial is relevant: as with consumers who want nothing to do with genetically modified foods, or ecologists who place special value on old growth forests. But these cases are of highly specific relevance, and do nothing to establish that what exists by nature is universally superior to that which was modified at some point by the human species.

We now turn from Aristotle and Leibniz to the present. To my mind, one of the most interesting philosophers working today is Bruno Latour, whose critique of modernity is nothing other than a critique of the nature/culture divide. One of his chief arguments is that modern objects so often take the form of “hybrids,” or entities that are difficult to pinpoint as either natural or cultural. The ozone hole is simultaneously a part of the earth and a product of human environmental misconduct. Many people walk among us with pacemakers or chemotherapy ports embedded in their “natural” bodies. Numerous features of the supposedly natural landscape around us were vastly improved by human labor at some point in history. At a certain point it makes little sense to distinguish between natural and unnatural entities. In a heavily urbanized society like ours, we increasingly know very little what is natural and what is not, and one imagines that the proliferation of pseudo-natural and crypto-artificial objects will only accelerate. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that I hold Aristotle’s and Leibniz’s valorization of nature to be more or less irrelevant in the new situation faced by contemporary philosophy, however valuable many of their insights remain.

Latour’s critique of modernity manages to flatten the natural/artificial distinction, leading his philosophy to be classed as a “flat ontology,” one that treats all entities in precisely the same terms regardless of their origin and status. As evidence of this flatness, he uses the term “actor” to refer equally to humans, animals, bricks, chemicals, machines, cartoon characters, and stars. Whatever acts in some way on something else deserves to be called an actor, and thus many traditional distinctions fall by the wayside. Nonetheless, Latour is not entirely consistent in applying this principle of flatness. For even as he destroys the modern distinction between one pure realm called nature and another pure realm called culture, Latour does not observe the neutrality that the new situation seems to call for. In an important article entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”, he inadvertantly restores the modern distinction and ends up choosing sides. One of the key new distinctions drawn in this article is that between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern.” Matters of fact refer to realities sitting around in the world unperceived by humans or anything else, and Latour seems to doubt that they exist at all. Matters of concern, by contrast, are known precisely through how they affect other entities. By attempting to replace all matters of fact to matters of concern, Latour is effectively following Alfred North Whitehead in arguing for a thoroughly relational philosophy, in which nothing exists in a vacuum but only through its interactions with other things. Yet we can easily see how this tends to restore the old modern taxonomy of nature and culture that Latour himself had dismissed in the early 1990s.

A scientific statement is no longer an index of something that exists outside our speaking of it, but an abbreviation or nickname for a whole armada of entities.

As one example, Latour tends to regard every entity discovered by science as equivalent to the social process through which it was discovered, even if in a wider sense of “society” that includes inanimate objects no less than humans. “Microbe” cannot just refer to a microscophic organism capable of making animals sick, but points instead to an entire historical series of “trials of strength,” including all the laboratory animals and equipment used by Louis Pasteur to establish the existence of microbes. A scientific statement is no longer an index of something that exists outside our speaking of it, but an abbreviation or nickname for a whole armada of entities that had to be mobilized for science to work at all.

Another way of putting it is that Latour tries to show that “nature” is really about “matters of concern.” Nature exists only insofar as it relates to everything else. But the converse lesson must also be stressed, though there is no place for it in the thought of Latour, not to mention Aristotle or Leibniz. Namely, there is also a sense in which what we call “culture” is also a “matter of fact.” That is to say, although droves of technicians and facilities are needed to produce the space shuttle or an iPhone, the relation between such devices and their numerous creators does not mean that they are purely relational. Whether an object sprouts in the forest or is fabricated in a mill, it has a certain autonomous character that suppresses its own conditions of production, or at least does not retain most of them. Artificial objects break free from the hands and minds of their designers, remain partly inscrutable to our interrogations, and may affect the universe long after recognizable humans have vanished from it.


Latest Releases
Join the conversation