Essay Three


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I am publishing here several of Guy Robinson's Essays. Several of these had until recently been posted at Guy's site, which no longer exists. In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I'd go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.


I only encountered Guy's work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas -- except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast bulk of material that claims to be Marxist (especially that which has been produced by academic Marxists), Guy's work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition.


[Many on the left think Wittgenstein was a conservative mystic. I have comprehensively refuted that idea here. Moreover, Guy's work alone is testimony to the fact that Wittgenstein's work is in fact conducive to Historical Materialism.]


Sadly, Guy passed away in October 2011.


This material has been posted with the permission of his son, but no one should assume that Guy would have agreed with any of the views expressed at this site -- other than those already contained in his essays. Nor should anyone assume that I agree with everything Guy says -- in particular, in this essay (near the end), with what appears to be Guy's commitment to essentialism.


I have re-formatted these essays to agree with the conventions adopted at this site; spelling has been altered to conform to UK English. One or two minor typos have been corrected.


This essay comprises Chapter Two of Guy's second book, Philosophy and Demystification, which has yet to find a publisher. Other chapters from this book can be accessed here.




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Chapter 2: The Concept Of Nature, Its Mystification And Demystification


Guy Robinson


A mystified and theologised concept of Nature lies at the core of the framework of thought and explanation that has successfully hidden from us our human creativity and our role in the shaping of the world. We have to see how the concept got mystified and theologised because it was given the work that had previously been given to God in the theological framework that had dominated the feudal era. In seeking to replace that framework with a secular one the philosophers of the time of the scientific revolution thought that all they had to do was to take what was seen as a secular concept and substitute it for God in the previous framework. However, what they actually accomplished in doing this was the theologising of the concept of nature as well as its thorough mystification -- rather than producing a secular substitute for the theological framework. This theologisation is not easy for us to see since that new point of view has become a dominant one in the modern era in which we talk of 'Nature's Laws' without any sense that this is essentially poetical (or, if you like, a quasi-religious) way of looking at the world to which we shall see, no concrete and literal sense can be given.


As soon as we try to take it seriously and literally, this picture falls apart. Firstly, because in this way of talking, Nature is being offered as the cause, explanation and guarantee of the regularities we find in the material world. If it is to be nominated as 'cause' according to the modern conception of cause, Nature would have to be conceived as something separate from the material world on which it is supposed to act -- and it therefore would have to be something immaterial. And here is where the mystification begins, because there is no way we can give a secular account of how something immaterial is supposed to bring about or cause regularities or enforce 'laws' on material things. We can accept the attribution of such mysterious powers to God because we expect mysteries in a religious picture, but in an account that purports to be secular they have no place. We can't allow a secular concept of Nature to be given those mysterious powers to control the world and enforce 'laws'.



Nature As Active Humans As Passive


It may be only a poetical way of looking at the world, but this picture has serious consequences for our way of looking at ourselves -- it presents us as passive in the face of something which we will show, is in fact a human construction though it gets presented to us as an absolute, ahistorical and external entity. It is also a piece of bad and destructive poetry. To see this we need to develop the point made by Engels in his complaint that the ahistorical or mechanical materialism founded on this conception of Nature: 'did not contend with the Christian contempt for and humiliation of man and merely posited Nature instead of the Christian God as the absolute facing Man.' We also need to illustrate and give concrete sense to that radical proposition of Marx's that nature itself has a history and one that is dialectically connected to the history of humanity. I do what I can in that direction in Chapter 3, Forms of Life and the Construction of Reality.


The mystification of the concept of nature and its establishment as a would-be absolute located nowhere on earth takes its start in a surprising place -- in that infamous passage in Descartes' Meditations III in which he tells us that his life is divided into an infinity of independent segments and that he needs some external power to keep him in existence from moment to moment, just as he needed parents to be born in the first place. We don't know what to make of this extraordinary picture because Descartes seems to be describing a mental illness more extreme than anything known in the literature. Oliver Sacks' patient at least had a life that was divided up into segments that were five minutes long, but Descartes' life segments seem to be instants only with no dimension. There is no possible way to make sense of these claims of Descartes or to give them the slightest credibility. Rather than a piece of philosophic argumentation, they seem to be the statement of bizarre new religion -- and in effect that is just what they are. Descartes is trying to convince us that we need something external to explain and to guarantee our continuity and presumably the continuity of everything else in the world. The previous era would have given that task to God, but Descartes is preparing us to give that role to Nature and to see Nature as something necessary to the continuity of the world. If the world needs something outside it to guarantee its continuity, that something is going to have to [be] given many of the characteristics of a deity. That is, despite being something immaterial and not located in the world, it is given power over the material things of the world. None of this can be given any concrete sense and can only be viewed (with considerable generosity) as a poetical expression of attitude to the world.


However it is not enough just to bring out the emptiness of this 'absolute' and of the picture built around it. To arm ourselves against it we should try to understand the reasons for its adoption so that we can see how they might have appeared compelling for those who were constructing that picture of a transcendentalized Nature (I have begun capitalizing the name to distinguish this conception from Aristotle's down-to-earth conception we will try to develop later.) But that is only one part of the job and will be gone into in more detail in the final chapter, where we will look at the historical situation in Europe in the era following the bourgeois revolution which had generated the 'possessive individualism' which was seen as having the potential to fragment society -- much as Descartes feared his personal fragmentation.


Also there was not the possibility of disposing of those fears through the kind of historical perspective that became possible only when the development of the sciences of geology and archaeology in the late 18th century had opened the door to evolution and to the historical perspective of Historical Materialism. The development of those sciences also consigned to the dustbin Archbishop Usher's use of the Bible to calculate that the world had been created in 4004 BC. With the development of those new sciences in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries, one would now read the rocks rather than the Bible to calculate the age of the world.


The more important and more difficult task now facing us will be to construct a concrete and down-to-earth conception of nature that does not fly off to transcendental realms like the theologised conception of Nature we are rejecting. An earth-based and even human-based conception of nature will also allow us to dispose of the pseudo-problem of 'The Uniformity of Nature' that used to exercise philosophers a great deal before they dropped it without solving it (because it was insoluble and needed to be shown to be a product of the false, transcendentalized conception that they had landed themselves with.) In forging a down-to-earth conception we will be able to call on help from Aristotle and the concepts of nature and the natural he set out in the Physics. But developing his concepts and keeping the whole account grounded will involve the further very difficult task of getting recognition of and acceptance for the fact of our human input into what we call 'nature' and the shaping of the world. This input has been hidden from us, disguised and projected out of the world and passed off as an external and changeless entity called 'Nature'. This is supposed to confront the whole of humanity as an entity beyond the reach of history and one that in no way reflects the cultural differences of the various human societies.



The Activity Of Humans In The Shaping Of Nature


We have to turn all of that on its head and bring out the role of history and human practices in the forming of the world that faces us.


The world that we face does not come to us ready-made -- as the traditional picture would have it --, nor is it, on the other hand, the free creation of human language builders, as seems to be suggested by some post-structuralists. Of course there is something outside language and we don't literally generate the world from nothing in creating language.


There is something that enters into and gives substance to, but does not dictate the formation of, the various human languages and therefore the picture of the world that accompanies each of them. That something is the material world. But our understanding of that notion of the material world has to start from Aristotle's conception of matter as that which can be shaped.


Of course matter cannot be shaped in just any way that we fancy and we distinguish different materials according to what they will allow us to do with them. We find that certain sorts of sand can be made into glass and that glass can be made into bowls, or pitchers, or beads, and many other things -- though, again, it can't be made into just anything we like. All these things that have been learned over the long history of humans working in the material world have been incorporated into the classifications recognised by the various languages and skills that each generation passes onto the next.


People without language live in a world nearly without form. As I suggested in the introduction, the world for the pre-linguistic is much like William James' description of the world of the new-born: 'a booming, buzzing confusion'. The child emerges from that confusion as it learns language. Learning the words for things is at the same time learning to distinguish those things from everything else. And we should always keep in mind that the children of different cultures are taught to distinguish quite different things with their different languages and so inhabit different worlds. Of course there are large overlaps between those different worlds and ways of life, overlaps that allow us to recognize those different ways of life as human, and to make a start on understanding those different languages.


All these points are part of constructing an alternative picture to the one built around the concept of Nature as some single, ahistorical thing standing outside the world and confronting all of humanity equally.


We want to say that there is something -- the material world -- which does not 'confront' all of humanity in exactly the same, but offers itself for shaping and will appear differently according to the language and skills that are brought to it.


Another part of dismantling that traditional picture is that of challenging the deeply ingrained belief that the senses are given to each of us in all their fullness. This belief was a necessary starting point and axiom for the empiricist program of showing that there is a single absolute reality and objective truth confronting all of humanity equally and ahistorically and can serve to unite humanity much as Christianity and other proselytising religions have been put forward as doing -- even though history shows us their opposite capacity of dividing humanity ferociously. At a period when philosophical individualism was taken as a given, such an entity as 'Nature' was seen as necessary to the unification of humanity through the work of the sciences in the face of an imagined threat of social breakdown generated by that individualism which had been taken as the basis of the new philosophy. That philosophic individualism also generated the bugbear of 'relativism' -- which was feared as the intellectual equivalent to the social breakdown it was imagined would take place if some unifying force were not found -- some single thing that all humans must recognize as standing above them.


This unification was another function given to Nature that had previously been assigned to God and Christianity. There is a fundamental difference, however, in the way Christianity was supposed to unify humanity because at the bottom it is an act of faith that is meant to do it rather than a passive imposition of the kind at work in the materialism that Engels was complaining about. Religious faith needs to be seen as a human act and not as a passive imposition from outside humanity. This is where Engels' analogy breaks down.


The empiricist program that was meant to deal with this threat of fragmentation tried to chart a regular path that would be followed by any right-thinking investigator correctly following 'scientific method', a path that stretched from the initial deliverances of 'sense data' (so-called in order to emphasize our passiveness in relation to the 'outside world') to growing knowledge of what they liked to call 'ultimate reality'. All of this was meant to emphasize human passivity in order to counter the threat of relativism and the breakdown of rational communication that seemed to arise from the combining [of] human creativity with the individualism that they took as their starting point.


We have to see that the fundamental trouble lay with the philosophic individualism with which the philosophers dug themselves into a hole from which neither the rationalism nor the empiricism they reached for could rescue them. We also have to see that all this threat of social breakdown or its intellectual equivalent, relativism, was a false problem generated by a false perception of humanity, and that if a large historical perspective had been available in the 17th century they could have seen that individualist perspective was the product of their wrongly taking the state of humanity in a particular society at a particular historical epoch as revealing something essential, timeless and universal.


We can understand their making this disastrous mistake when we realize that they could not have had any sense of the sweep of human history nor knowledge of the fact that humanity had to create itself out of some previously pre-social species. From that perspective we can see that what enabled humanity to distinguish itself from those previous species of the genus homo was sociability not individualism. An ahistorical individualism would have prevented that transition 'from herd to tribe' which describes the passage from the pre-human creatures of instinct to social creatures shaped by the particular society they belong to. We can also see that individualism itself was made possible only by a long history of social development that led to a social system that was shaped by the institution of private property and a system of production based on the buying and selling of human labour. In the history of some cultures this has not happened and to set oneself apart in the way people of our culture strive to do, would amount to a kind of madness and exclusion from society itself, a kind of death.



The History Of The Senses


Now we need to challenge the picture of passivity constructed out of this fear of 'relativism' and to show that the would-be remedy of empiricism cannot get off the ground because the senses themselves are not the passive instruments of Nature or something called 'the external world'. The senses themselves have been developed historically and the people of different cultures and even different professions learn to see, hear, smell, taste and feel things that people from another culture or profession cannot. Since that belief in the unity and ahistoricity of sense capacity for all humans has been a founding dogma of empiricism, it is not going to be set aside easily -- since discarding it will bring that whole enterprise to ruin. But the plain facts are against it.


Anyone who has learned a foreign language can recall how they had to learn to hear as well as to make certain sounds. I can remember being taught to hear the intervals 1-3-5-8 in the octave scale. And someone from a culture that did not use that scale would find it a lot more difficult than I did -- which was difficult enough. And when I was briefly in the Medical Corps of the US Army, I can remember being taught to hear the differences in the sound of someone's pulse as one was taking blood pressure and letting up the pressure in the armband and allowing the blood to pass through the arteries. There is one sound as the blood first forces its way through at each pulse and the arteries clap together again and another sound the pulse makes when the blood is passing continuously. And another example I have often used is the inability of native speakers of Japanese to hear the difference between the sound of the letter 'r' and the letter 'l'. That ability is not given at birth with their sense of hearing nor is the inability to hear the difference the sign of some defect in that sense. And it is not that they can hear the difference but can't put a name to it or to the separate sounds. They simply cannot hear any difference -- though they can be taught to.


And we can provide examples for the other senses as well. A professional wine taster or a wine enthusiast may be able to taste the difference between a Cabernet Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon or between one vintage and another -- something that will escape many of us and be out of the question for someone from Melanesia, Chad or Burkina Faso. These points are hard to take in and need special emphasis in a time and culture in which the mechanistic picture generated by modern science is dominant. In this picture all those differences are invisible because all sense experience is reduced to energy transfers or chemical interactions of one kind or another. It is also important for us to challenge the assumption and the resulting program built round it that there is only one pre-eminent and 'correct' form of explanation and understanding that stands above all the others and aims to reduce them all to it. This assumption, which is central to the mechanistic program, generates a great number of intractable and unnecessary problems that have defeated philosophers' attempts to solve them. A good example is the body/mind 'problem' which only represents the fact that a mechanistic system of explanation has no place for concepts such as aim, purpose, point, desire, or any of the others that go into our understanding of human actions. Purposive behaviour cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations and it is a waste of time to try. We have to recognize the variety of forms of understanding that are needed in life and dealing with the world. The attempt to reduce them all to one is yet another of the destructive projects which the modern framework has attempted to impose on us out of a mistaken fear of social or rational breakdown.


But to make these negative points stick we have also to develop a positive account of nature that remains grounded in this world and does not fly off into mysterious transcendental realms. Here we can start with Aristotle, whose concept of nature and the natural is descriptive and not explanatory. For him, the natural is simply 'what happens, by-and-large and for the most part.' To call something 'natural' is not to give an explanation but to say that no special explanation in needed. 'That's just the way things are.' It is only deviations from the common pattern that call for explanation -- we look for something that has interfered with the normal behaviour or development of the thing.



Nature As Descriptive Versus Nature As Explanatory


Now we come to the difficult part -- Aristotle's conception of nature, which he describes as 'an internal principle of movement or change'.


Many have misconstrued this as suggesting that 'nature' is something inside the thing that causes it to behave naturally. I would like to absolve Aristotle from this interpretation since it lands itself immediately in a regress and leads nowhere. If the thing's nature is thought of as something inside it that physically causes it to behave in certain ways, then it must itself be taken to be something physical. Nothing else could be described as 'inside' in this sense and as 'causing' (in the modern rather than in the Aristotelian sense of 'cause') those motions and developments. But if it is supposed to be something physical causing the thing to develop and change in the way it does the thing’s 'nature' must itself have a nature which causes it to operate on the thing in the way it does. And so we are off on a regress because the nature of the nature will itself have to have a nature and so on, and so on. However, as I suggest below, this does not mean that those regularities we call 'natural' cannot be investigated and perhaps explained in terms of deeper regularities.


The word Aristotle uses here, arche, and gets translated as 'principle' does not lend itself to a physical interpretation. Its general sense is that of 'principle', which is not a physical thing and cannot be located physically -- so 'internal' cannot be construed as 'inside'. How else is it to be construed? I want to suggest that it has to be taken as 'logically internal' -- i.e. that it is contained in or related to the way we identify that sort of thing. We will have to go on to explore and make clear what that may mean. First we must look at some ways that we say that something 'has' a principle in a sense that goes beyond simply saying that it behaves in a regular and predictable way. To say that I have principles that guide my actions is clearly not to say that there is something inside that causes those actions and yet it is to say more than that I am simply behaving in certain ways. We give quite a different sense to the notion of 'having' here and want to suggest that I have made that principle my own and have allowed it to guide my actions. Obviously nothing like this is going on when we describe nature as 'an internal principle' of change and development in plants and animals.



Nature And The Natural As Embedded In Our Classifications


I would like to make the radical suggestion that the principle of movement and development of things is 'internal' in the logical sense that the pattern of movement or development is embedded in the way we identify that sort of thing as a 'so-an-so'. If it doesn't move or develop in that way, we withdraw the name and identification and look for a new way of identifying it -- or else, if we think it still deserves the name, we will look for something that has interfered with its normal and natural development. And here we meet Aristotle's distinction between essence and accident. To reinforce this point that the nature of anything is internal to and founded on our way of identifying it as that sort of thing, I would like to connect Aristotle's conception of 'nature' to that of 'essence'. A thing has an essence only in so far as it has been identified as a member of some species, or as this or that sort of thing. The concept of 'nature' should be understood to be that of 'essence' with the addition of a temporal dimension, so that we identify some things not just by their physical form, but also by how they move and develop. Regularities of movement and development of something are that part of the form we call its nature.


The Aristotelian concept of nature has to be set among in the central and basic concepts of his metaphysics: substance/attribute, essence/accident and it comes with and depends on the concept of essence; the concept of essence, in turn, comes with and depends on the definitions and classifications we make. There are those who think that this claim is at odds with Aristotle's thought and that he viewed essences as realities independent of humanity. There are certainly some passages that seem to point in this direction, though there is one place in Metaphysics V where he quotes with approval a fragment from Empedocles which subverts that interpretation and supports the radical reading we have put forward: 'as Empedocles says: "Of nothing that exists is there nature, but only mixture and separation of what has been mixed; nature is but a name given to these by men."' (1015a)


I don't want to turn this chapter into an exegesis of Aristotle but I would like to bring him on board for my thesis that human practices and classifications lie at the heart of and express our grasp of the world we live in and in fact define that world for us and settle for us what is to be taken as essential and what is merely accidental, what is natural and what is a violation of the nature of something. Since the reading of Aristotle I am proposing is resisted or even rejected by some, I would like to support that radical reading by referring once again to the analysis I previously have made of the crucial arguments he makes for those fundamental laws of metaphysics which he calls the 'laws of being qua being' -- the Law of Contradiction and the Law of Excluded Middle. I claim that the very special arguments with which he proves them (which he calls 'apodeixai elencticos') reveal those 'laws of being qua being to be laws of meaningful expression -- that is, laws of significance.1 If the fundamental laws of metaphysics have to do with language it is reasonable to see the classifications and definitions embodied in language as lying at the root of his basic concepts of essence/accident, nature and substance.


Those definitions and classifications themselves come with and depend on human practices and result from human practical interaction with the world. This whole hierarchy of concepts stands on and derives from the human activity of making classifications of things on the basis of both their form and their behaviour. In this way we can say that the concept of nature simply records the perceived normal behaviour of things and is not something which brings that behaviour about. However, once we have recognized and recorded those regularities and given them definitional status by describing them as the 'nature' of some sort of thing, we can set about investigating the causes of those regularities and show them as arising from some deeper regularities connected with the form or the matter of the thing.



Science And The Down-To-Earth Concept Of Nature


And here we can connect our analysis to the sciences because this is the pattern of scientific investigation. To call some regularity we have recognized 'natural' signals that it can be counted on and is worth investigating -- that it is not an accidental confluence that will waste our time and lead to no deeper understanding. This is a reflection of Aristotle's essence/accident distinction. As he says, 'there is no science of the accident' and to call some regularity 'natural' is to connect it to the essence of the thing and to see it as worthy of being given definitional status and worthy of further investigation.



Useful And Useless Classifications


Because of the fundamental role we have given to those classifications made by humans it is essential to expand this point about the 'worthiness' of some classifications to be both adopted and further investigated so that we can be clear that they are not, and cannot be, the free creations of the members of the cultures that adopt them and use them to view and work in the world. But neither are they imposed by some fixed and formed 'external world' as it has traditionally been called in order to assert our passivity in relation to it. This is why, as I explain in chapter 4, I want to substitute the concept of a 'material world' for 'external world' in order to emphasise its openness to being formed both physically and conceptually by those very classifications we bring to it.


But those classifications that help shape the world for us are not our free creations (or we would be living in a fantasy world). They come out of a dynamic, dialectical and historically developing relation between ourselves and the material world, which grows out of our practical interactions with it. The classifications humans come up with as a result of that interaction are part of their armoury of tools to organize things for their use in the world and their particular environment of mountain, desert, jungle, plains, suburb or slum.


With the exception of concepts involved in myth or ritual, our concepts have practical work to do in helping us to shape and organize the material world in order to survive and prosper in it and those classifications and concepts that turn out to be of limited or no use in practice, will be modified or abandoned. But those practices which are putting the concepts to work will differ from culture to culture and so will the concepts that their interaction with the material world produces. So we have to factor in 'the way of life' into that dialectical interaction between humans and the material world. But we must be clear that the 'way of life' may itself be in its turn modified by the grasp of the world generated by that interaction.


This is where Wittgenstein comes into the equation with his 'what has to be accepted the given, is -- so one could say -- forms of life' (PI p.226 -- Philosophical Investigations, p.226: RL) -- though we must avoid the idea that this implies that forms of life are given once and forever. Forms of life are given by one generation to the next and not in just the same form in which they were received from the previous generation. The form of life is one element in a dynamic interaction which helps shape the aims, projects and classifications that are adopted in a particular culture at a certain time. That form of life will, in its turn, be affected by those projects and classifications adopted in a mutually influencing historical development that has no end.



The Pseudo-Problem Of 'The Uniformity Of Nature'


Lastly, to get a good grip of the character and function of the concept of nature and the natural we have been putting forward, it will be useful to look at the pseudo-problem of 'The Uniformity of Nature', to see that it was generated by the wrong-headed project of finding a secular God-substitute that would both explain and guarantee from outside the regularities we work with in the material world. The first point to be made here is that no explanation is needed for our ability to find regularities in the world, because no universe could be conceived in which it was not possible to find regularities no matter what means were used. But as for guaranteeing the continuance of the regularities we do find the shift from God as external guarantor to Nature generates an impossible problem. Those who believe in God can't question the reliability of Him as guarantor -- that would be a matter of faith. But those who offered Nature as guarantor could not appeal to such an internal guarantee. The reliability of this would-be secular guarantee could be questioned and once questioned no second-order guarantee could be offered and the question is left hanging and no reason can be offered as why we can have faith in it.


The whole thrust of our account has been to show that no such external guarantee is needed because continuity of behaviour is given and guaranteed by our classifications and the definitions we embody in our human languages. If something that we take to be a so-and-so fails to behave in the appropriate way, we either withdraw the name or else look for something else that has interfered with it and prevented it from behaving normally. In that way, water can always be guaranteed to boil at 100ºC. If it doesn't, we look for impurities or other disturbing factors such as altitude or other causes of changes in air pressure.


Of course, as we have pointed out above, we don't have it all our own way in making those classifications and may develop or abandon them in the light of our experiences in working with them. Languages have a history and develop and change over time -- so the guarantees offered by them are not of the timeless and absolute sort sought by the proposers of the transcendental conception of Nature vainly sought. Still they obviate that perceived need for an external guarantee -- which in any case can't deliver the goods.




1. I first analysed this argument of Aristotle's in Chapter 2 of my book, Philosophy and Mystification.


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