Nature refers to the source out of which something has come into being. The word nature is derived from the Latin natura (birth) or nasci (to be born). A similar meaning is found in the Greek physis, which means growth. The concept of nature holds a variety of meanings, depending on the relation in which it is understood. In a political setting, nature is often seen in contrast to custom, culture, and law. In religious terms, nature is often opposed to grace and spirit. Viewed philosophically, nature can be understood in contrast to history and freedom. Nature can also be seen as: (1) the object of scientific observation and enquiry; (2) a normative notion, such as the question of "natural" behavior; (3) an essential notion, such as human "nature"; and (4) a notion concerning evidence, as in the exclamation "naturally!" These different meanings can be taken either as a sign of the philosophically problematic use of this notion or its need of specification.
Several of these concepts have their roots in ancient Greek philosophy. In pre-Socratic philosophy nature was seen in contrast to relativism. Cultures varied, but nature was considered constant and was therefore regarded as ethically normative. Aristotle, who understood nature in teleological terms, carried the notion of the normativity even further. The essence (form) of natural beings carried with it a certain purpose that determined the good life. The morally good life was believed to be in accordance with nature, an understanding further developed in Stoic philosophy, which argued for life in accordance with nature.
These concepts of nature had an enduring impact on theological and philosophical thought during the Middle Ages. During this period, however, a contrast between nature and the supernatural was increasingly endorsed. Nature was distinguished from the divine. For the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225274), however, nature was not opposed to the divine. Aquinas maintained an analogy of being (analogia entis) between eternal law (lex aeterna), the constitutive law of being that is identical to divine reason, and natural law (lex naturalis), which is understood as the participation of the rational being in eternal law.
During the sixteenth century, nature could also be set in contrast to divine will. Consequently, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, nature became increasingly understood as morally neutral. As physics became identified with mechanics during the scientific revolution, nature came to be understood in mechanistic terms, as something that could be described with physical laws. This change in the role of the sciences, and the corresponding change in the understanding of nature, implied a different relation to nature. Nature became understood as that which was different from human beings and that which humans, as rational beings, were to control. The natural sciences served this purpose as knowledge about nature was regarded as power over nature.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724804) had an enduring impact on the scientific understanding of nature. According to Kant, the different objects of nature could not be known in themselves, but could only be known as appearances determined by the epistemological categories of space and time. Consequently, Kant's transcendental philosophy implied that in the apprehension of nature human beings were structuring the very same nature. Kant became influential for his emphasis on the interrelation between nature as an object and the formative impact of the human apprehension of nature.
Another fundamental turn in the scientific understanding of nature was the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). According to Darwin's theory of evolution, new species originated from other species, and natural life was formed according to the principles of variation and natural selection. This view of nature has often been seen as opposed to a theological understanding of nature as designed by God. As a consequence, nature was no longer considered as good in itself, but as morally ambiguous.
Modern scientific concepts of nature
In a contemporary setting, the diversity of the notions of nature is as varied as in previous epochs, with a host of holistic, religious, and ecological understandings in play. Karen Gloy has demonstrated how an organicist notion of nature has been in use since the Renaissance. The ecological mode is present in environmental ethics. The philosopher J. Baird Callicott argues that nature is to be seen as a biotic community. Based on evolutionary theory, nature is regarded as an interrelated, interdependent, ecological web of life, which raises the ethical implication that the good is defined as that which furthers the stability of the biotic community. Jürgen Moltmann endorses a theological understanding of evolution in which evolutionary theory is not contrary to the doctrine of creation. Like Callicott, Moltmann argues that the ecological community of life serves as the basis of the moral demand to preserve nature. Furthermore, both Callicott and Moltmann endorse the connection between a holistic and normative notion of nature.
In other theories, nature is seen as self-organizing. Niels Henrik Gregersen views nature in the light of autopoietic systems theory. It is argued that the Christian theology of creation is not contrary to an understanding of nature as self-productive. God's self-consistency and self-relativization in exchange with nature is endorsed. God not only sustains nature but is also seen as a structuring cause. Michael Welker challenges the traditional concept of creation. Often creation is understood as a unique act of bringing into existence, but Welker argues that God is not simply active but also reactive in the creation of the world. The act of creation is an interaction between God and the activity and productivity of nature. Both Gregersen and Welker argue for the self-productivity of nature.
Nature continues to be a fundamental religious, philosophical, and scientific concept. The variety of meanings and aspects to this notion is perhaps one source of its continuing appeal to various discourses of enquiry.
See also AUTOPOIESIS; KANT, IMMANUEL
Callicott, J. Baird. In Defense of the Land Ethic. Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species (1859). New York: Bantam, 1999.
Gloy, Karen. Das Verständnis der Natur. I Die Geschichte des wissenschaftlichen Denkens. Munich, Germany: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1995.
Gloy, Karen. Das Verständnis der Natur. II Die Geschichte des ganzheitlichen Denkens. Munich, Germany: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1996.
Gregersen, Niels Henrik. "The Idea of Creation and the Theory of Autopoietic Processes." Zygon 33, no. 3 (1998): 33367.
Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, trans. Margaret Kohl. San Francisco: Harper, 1985.
Soper, Kate. What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Welker, Michael. "What is Creation?: Reading Genesis 1 and 2." Theology Today 48, no. 1 (1991): 561.
ULRIK B. NISSEN
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