When we talk about nature, we can mean many things. Mountains and seas, swamps and forests, bacteria and viruses are nature. Nature may also be each being’s typical way of being and behaving – human nature or a wolf’s nature. For others, everything is nature, even human behaviour. For some, however, nature is only in places where the effects of humans cannot be seen. In the time of environmental crises, our conceptions of nature are challenged, and we must ask, for example: Is climate change nature or not? How does our answer affect our attitudes towards climate change?
The idea of nature has a long and winding history in Western philosophy. In this chapter, we will acquaint ourselves with the salient points of this history so we could better understand how different conceptions of nature have affected human thinking and activity. The prevailing conceptions of nature are tightly connected with the prevailing conceptions of what it is to be human. We will focus particularly on the conceptions of nature and humanity in the modern era.
Our ideas about the relations between human and nature are an essential part of both politics and other societal activity as well as everyday life and thought. “Nature” refers to real phenomena and beings, but it is also a metaphor on which human cultures are built. In ancient times, nature was seen as an unchanging cosmos in which all elements are in their appropriate positions, just as they are in the ideal Greek city state. As Christianity grew stronger in Europe, nature was increasingly viewed as God’s creation which, according to the ancient conception, was perfect and unchanging in itself. Along with the modern era, the conception of nature slowly became more mechanised: nature was viewed as a complex machine, whose operation can be investigated through research, and whose output could be utilised by people. The idea of “machine nature” gradually developed into the modern conception of nature as a totality of systems, in which there are certain continuities but which is also in a constant state of change.
Even though the history of the conception of nature can be described in such a crude and simple manner, we should also bear in mind that during each era, humans have had diverse, different and even conflicting conceptions of nature. Some conceptions are also in internal conflict. The conception of nature that became more common during the Romantic era is a good example of such internal conflict: in order for a human to have a connection to nature, they must perceive themselves as separate from it, to some extent. Nature can be seen as the original state of humans or an environment from which they have become alienated or which they have risen above. There are often attempts to increase the appreciation of nature by suggesting that humans should “get back” to nature or “connect with nature”. Many critical thinkers have, however, suggested that the concept of nature is misleading or even detrimental.
In addition to conceptions of human and nature, this chapter also covers the relations between humans and other animals, their differences and similarities. Animals have always been contemplated in Western philosophy, and the line between human and animal has been drawn in many different ways. The ethics of animal relations has much to give to the ongoing discussion on planetary well-being. We will also think about how the “environment” differs from “nature” and we will present premises of environmental philosophy and environmental policy from the perspective of planetary well-being. Finally, we will ask if it is possible, or even desirable, to break away from the anthropocentric way of thinking.
The section is divided into five chapters which can each be found in its own separate tab.
At the end of the section, you can test your knowledge with the “True or False” examination. The examination can be found on the last tab of this section with the title “Test your knowledge 2”. Please note that the examination includes claims from the entire subject area of section 2. The history of understanding nature. Study chapters 2.1–2.5 and complete the examination afterwards.
Finally, after studying this second section you can test your competence with the exam. The exam is below.
Take the exam in order to pass the second section of the course. The statements in the exam are either true or false. Which one is the right answer?
Just answer the questions, and after you have finished your exam and completed it you will get your test result. You need 8 out of 12 questions to be right to pass the exam. You will get the results and feedback right after finishing the exam.
You will be able to try again until you pass the exam.