A Defense of the Concept of Nature

In: Danish Yearbook of Philosophy
Sune FrølundDanish School of Education, Aarhus University, Copenhagen, Denmark,

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The concept of nature is under attack from a number of contemporary researchers on ecology. This seems alarming in light of the current struggle to establish the anthropogenic, i.e., non-natural origin of climate change and mass extinction. This paper selects three examples of ‘nature denial’ by influential writers—Steven Vogel, Timothy Morton, and Bruno Latour—and tries to show that without a concept of nature, their theories are incoherent. Finally, the paper turns to Gernot Böhme for a philosophy of body and nature that can evade the aporias in which the three other writers are entangled.


The concept of nature is under attack from a number of contemporary researchers on ecology. This seems alarming in light of the current struggle to establish the anthropogenic, i.e., non-natural origin of climate change and mass extinction. This paper selects three examples of ‘nature denial’ by influential writers—Steven Vogel, Timothy Morton, and Bruno Latour—and tries to show that without a concept of nature, their theories are incoherent. Finally, the paper turns to Gernot Böhme for a philosophy of body and nature that can evade the aporias in which the three other writers are entangled.

1 Nature and Human Beings

‘Anthropocene’ is now widely accepted as a term expressing essential and epochal traits resulting from the power of humans to leave their mark on Earth. In the Anthropocene, human impact competes with plate tectonics, volcanism, orbital cycles, erosion, and so on. For most people, the concept also implies a profound concern that humanity’s adaptation of the environment to its own ends has reached an alarming level. The question is whether the environment has the strength to restore itself and hence sustain humanity’s current level of consumption.

The concept of the Anthropocene and discussions of environmental issues in general seem to presuppose the possibility of distinguishing between anthropogenic and natural factors. Both are transforming the environment, but anthropogenic factors can produce unexpected transformations that threaten human survival and could be curbed or averted. It is hard to imagine how environmental problems can be identified or described without upholding the human-nature distinction. Environmental changes, even radical changes such as those caused by a meteor some 66 million years ago, are not considered to be environmental or ecological problems because no humans were involved. Conversely, if humans are considered entirely and thoroughly natural, void of anything differentiating them from non-human nature, all environmental changes must be described as natural, and environmentalists’ worries about the need to alter human behavior are devoid of sense. The whole point of naming a geological epoch after human beings is to underline that this epoch did not come about naturally but as the result of human deliberation and action, and indeed could have turned out differently.

Surprisingly, the concept of nature and the distinction between humans and nature are under attack by influential researchers, even researchers who share a concern for the environment and for the future of life on Earth. The concept of nature, they claim, is ideological, unclear, or meaningless, and downright detrimental for the environment, because it relies on a distinction that they allege has estranged us from nature. Precisely this estrangement is held responsible for environmental problems like global warming or mass extinction. The obvious consequence of this understanding is that humans should realize that they themselves are utterly natural; that is, they have no reason to believe they are in any way exceptional compared to other natural entities.

This paper recommends that a distinction between humans and other forms of nature be upheld and, as such, also maintains a concept of nature. My position by no means implies allotting a nobler status to humans or situating them outside nature. Rather, I will argue that denying humans a special status in nature precludes any understanding of the meaning of environmental problems and negates any expectation that humans will react to, solve, or prevent such problems. Additionally, without a concept of nature and naturalness we have absolutely no possibility of identifying differences between natural and anthropogenic transformations, and hence no reason to speak of environmental problems or of the Anthropocene.

The ‘function’ of the concept of nature has been discussed since antiquity in the European tradition later labeled ‘philosophy of nature.’ Plato and Aristotle identified the main concern of their pre-Socratic forerunners as an inquiry into nature. Maybe the early philosophers focused on nature because humans had become town dwellers and needed to reflect on the state of nature they had more or less left behind, but were still dependent on. Ever since, philosophy of nature has had its peaks and troughs in European thinking; it has even been intermittently laid in the grave by repeated attempts to abolish the idea of nature since early modern history.1 These attempts have often been a reaction to the frequent invocation of nature for conservative purposes, such as to defend social, racial, ethnic, or gender privileges and inequality. Researchers have repeatedly been able to show that what was considered natural is in fact just a convention and hence amenable or dispensable. But it is one thing to move the boundary between nature and human convention, and another to do away with nature entirely. In this paper, I will show that it is not possible to dispense with the concept of nature in environmental thinking without running into problems that undermines one’s position and intentions.

I will now present and analyze three influential theoretical arguments for rejecting the idea of nature before outlining a defense.

2 Steven Vogel and the Socialization of Nature

In 1996, the American philosopher Steven Vogel published Against Nature. This book leveled a critique at the concept of nature developed within Critical Theory as formulated by the so-called Frankfurt School comprising, inter alia, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas. Vogel demonstrated the prevalence of an ambivalent, even contradictory conception of nature within Critical Theory, most evident in a work by one of the school’s founders, namely the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács’s Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness, 1923).

In this book, Lukács blamed bourgeois philosophers for the ‘reification’ of nature in their claims that nature exists independently of our social practice and cognition. Lukács proposed a social constructivist model of cognition, which turned nature into a ‘social category.’ However, he did not appear to follow this suggestion in his own book, instead continuing to distinguish between nature and society. This became apparent when Lukács rebuked Friedrich Engels for having applied Marx’s dialectics to nature (in Engels’s Dialectics of Nature). According to Lukács, dialectics is a method for understanding societies and is not applicable to nature. In this way, Lukács defined nature as a social category while at the same time maintaining that nature is independent of society.2

Vogel suggests a way to save Critical Theory from this contradiction. He preserves Lukács’s constructivism but abandons the idea of nature’s independence from society. Drawing support from Marx’s writings, Vogel claims that nature is the outcome of social practice and that, cognitively speaking, we can only access products of this practice. It therefore makes no sense to believe that nature can exist independently of human social practice. This also holds true for matter of any kind: it did not exist in some raw, unmanufactured state before human practice, but is constructed by this very practice. In this way, Vogel transforms everything into artifacts and concludes that there is no room for the idea of nature. Surprisingly, Vogel considers his new theory to be a form of materialism.

In Thinking like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature (2015), Vogel sets himself the task of demonstrating that environmental philosophy is better off if it drops the concept of nature, whose flaws he considers incurable. He admits that his take on materialism draws surprisingly close to what classical philosophy considers its polar opposite, namely idealism. ‘Idealism’ is a term used to denote theories that view nature and matter as dependent on human thought and action and is normally associated with philosophers such as George Berkeley and Immanuel Kant. While Berkeley rejected the existence of the material world outright, Kant only insisted that we are ignorant of any reality, material or not, beyond our construction. Nevertheless, Kant insisted that such reality exists as his famous “thing in itself.” When Vogel feels he veers too close to idealism, he pulls a similar trick. Even if Vogel’s artifacts are constructed by human activity, he insists that they contain something more than what was constructed—something that transcends the constructor’s intentions. Artifacts, it seems, are not entirely under our control and do not adhere to our plans henceforth. Building materials disintegrate over time as products become worn out and deteriorate, rust, or rot. In sum: forces are working independently of us and our powers of construction in all matter.

Surprisingly, Vogel describes what he identifies as “more” in the artifacts as “nature.”3 It is easy to follow Vogel when he interprets what is uncontrollable in the artifacts as stemming from the nature of their material components. However, it is startling to watch him reuse a concept he has repeatedly dismissed. It is as if he smuggles the concept of nature in through the back door after throwing it out the front door. He could easily have chosen a name other than ‘nature’ for the autonomous forces acting in the artifacts. However, it has apparently not escaped Vogel’s attention that the most common name for such forces is in fact ‘nature.’4 Trying to avoid an overt contradiction, he declares that nature, like Kant’s thing in itself, only has an ‘as if’ existence.

Summing up, it is evident that Vogel is trapped in the same contradiction he exposed in the work of Lukács and other Marxist philosophers. He has not succeeded in developing a theory that can dispense with forces that are beyond our control and operate independently of human beings. In other words, he did not manage to get rid of nature.5

3 Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature

Timothy Morton, a British literary historian, also repudiates the concept of nature due to what he sees as the concept’s inherent contradictions. However, his basis for doing so differs from that of Vogel. Morton identifies a highly problematic concept of nature within Romantic literature, which he argues is also found in much contemporary writing on ecology. In Ecology without Nature,6 Morton discusses the dual signification of factual reality and normative standards that he identifies in the concept of nature. In Romanticism’s construction, nature is both the safe harbor in which we should take refuge as a cure for our alienation as well as the radical Other, vulnerable and at risk of destruction from our interference. The thinking behind this is that ‘in reality’ we are, or at least were, an integral part of nature, but later transgressed its limits and norms and alienated ourselves from it. This explains why we have become destructive forces that will gradually devastate nature. Salvation therefore seems to demand that we realize our original status and stick to nature’s guidelines. Nature is understood as what we are, but at the same time, it is also our contradistinction. Morton’s point is that such ambiguity renders it impossible to base ecological actions on the concept of nature.7 On the one hand, he claims, we are invited to return to nature and to be reintegrated in it; on the other hand, we are urged to stay away from nature in order to prevent its destruction.

Morton points out further ambivalences in the concept of nature. It is used to designate the physical matter you can touch, but also the inaccessible ‘essence’ of things, which traditionally is perceived as the almost transcendental, supra-historical identity of the thing.8 Nature becomes “a transcendental term in a material mask.”9 Furthermore, when nature is interpreted as quasi-divine, the result is a mishmash of God and matter, subject and object, and eternity and human history in which opposites should be united, even as it is claimed that they already are and always have been united. According to Morton, such ambivalences in the concept of nature will spoil ecological politics, ethics, philosophy, and even art.10

Morton knows that the concept of nature is born of a complicated historical development. In Ecology without Nature, Morton observes summarily that in the Middle Ages nature was considered evil, while in the age of Romanticism things were turned around and nature was reinterpreted as the basis for social good. The Enlightenment ultimately established nature as ‘normal,’ potentially marginalizing the socially, racially or sexually ‘unnatural.’ In all three cases, Morton concludes, the concept is used ideologically.

In Being Ecological,11 Morton traces the concept of nature back to the origins of agriculture in the Neolithic period, which is almost identical with the Holocene period that the Anthropocene is presumed to have superseded. During the Holocene, 12–13,000 years of relatively stable climate made possible the development of what we call culture and civilization. Morton criticizes agricultural thinking—“agrilogistics,” he calls it—for having constructed a naïve idea of nature as “harmonious periodic cycling.” This idea is inspired by the seasonal changes that agriculture has relied on for tilling the soil.12 Allegedly, as early as 10,000 years ago, the cyclic stability of the seasons led the Mesopotamians to believe that nature constituted an unchangeable, non-historical backdrop for human activity and civilization. Our inherited naïve confidence that this picture reflects actual nature has led us directly into the chaos we now find ourselves in, Morton says. We have become accustomed to the belief that “nature sort of means something you forget about because it’s just functioning.”13 Only a new “dark ecology” can straighten this out, Morton claims.14 However, this implies that we must entirely drop the ideas of sustainability15 and nature.16

Morton understands the notion of sustainability as tightly interwoven with the naïve belief that our self-centered and exclusionary way of life can be preserved and is worth preserving. It is relatively easy to follow Morton’s critique of the notion. It is still easier to follow his rejection of the harmonious and ahistorical concept of nature, erroneously believed to be capable of neutralizing all anthropogenic impacts over time. Yet the very existence of such a harmful version of nature is not reason enough to discard the concept of nature entirely. After all, there are alternatives to Romanticism’s interpretations of nature, even if it is this concept that still dominates contemporary eco-literature.

Three hundred years ago, some scientists and philosophers questioned the narrative of nature’s geological and biological stability. They strived for greater recognition of the “deep history”17 of the earth—a history of countless and violent upheavals with dramatic consequences such as mass extinctions. In 1864, George Perkins Marsh established that many European and North American landscapes, normally considered to be in a state of natural equilibrium, were in fact the result of human activity whose impact nature had been unable to counter.18 The reaction of Marsh and other scientists was to call for a revision of the concept of nature, rather than to abandon it entirely. Why can Morton not do the same? Why does he not at least tolerate nature as one of his famous and celebrated ‘hyperobjects,’ which is his term for fluffy entities that are massively distributed in space and time, such as climate change, styrofoam, or the acidification of the oceans?

Also disputable is Morton’s insistence that we currently entertain an absolute opposition between human beings and nature that supports our megalomaniacal idea of human exceptionalism. The dichotomy between human beings and nature is ‘agrilogistic’ and, according to Morton, reveals our disgust at the thought of being connected with non-human beings.19 Agricultural societies certainly defend themselves against the intrusion of anything that poses a threat to farmland and do so in a way not seen among hunter-gatherer peoples. The latter, in many cases, do not even have a concept of nature as opposed to culture.20 However, an undercurrent of nature worship in European culture runs counter to Morton’s assumption that humans detest non-humans: from the scala naturae or ‘great chain of being’ in the Middle Ages, to Linnaeus’s systematization of different flora and his classification of the orangutan as Homo nocturnus,21 to the worship of pets in modern time. Similarly, there is the tradition of depicting animals in heraldry and the identification of humans with animals in our fables. Additionally, one can point to the numerous attempts since at least the eighteenth century to naturalize human beings by reducing specifically human properties such as rationality, ethics, and aesthetics to mechanics (La Mettrie) or explaining these phenomena as naturally selected (Darwin). Any effort to elevate humans at the expense of non-humans has been accompanied by an equally dominant tendency to draw analogies between humans and non-humans.

The critique of anthropocentrism is certainly relevant when leveled against the idea that human beings are more ‘elevated’ (whatever that means) than nature. However, when this critique completely rejects the idea that “humans are the center of meaning,” as Morton does,22 why write a book about it? The intended audience for Morton’s book comprises human beings, who he demands must change their behavior,23 whereas animals and plants are not asked to change anything, even if their impact on the environment can be devastating for other species.

To be fair, Morton often only reluctantly asks us to change our behavior. On the one hand, he states the obvious: that “what to do is drastically to limit or eliminate carbon emissions.”24 Nevertheless, he claims that the belief that we can change anything through knowledge rests on the unacceptable idea that humans are superior to nature.25 Morton certainly neither approves of geo-engineering nor of “the economy of restriction”26 as a means to solve current ecological problems. In fact, he does not want anything to be changed except for the emergence of a new consciousness that we live alongside and must care for non-humans.27 The last sentence in Being Ecological reads, “You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological”!28

The merit of Morton’s work is that it punctures a normative romantic-holistic concept of nature and pinpoints the conservative aspects of the concept of sustainability. His criticism of human exceptionalism leads him to the “paradox”29 that he divests us of the ability to reorganize our mode of life, but at the same time clearly points out the necessity of decarbonizing the atmosphere. It is hard to figure out what to do with eco-politics cast in this way.

4 The Gaian Metaphysics of Bruno Latour

The French anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, who is by far the most influential of the three ‘nature deniers’ I discuss in this paper, outlines a third critique of the concept of nature. Latour has had quite an impact on both Vogel and Morton, as well as a whole generation of other researchers in the fields of sociology and the humanities.

In Latour’s case, as with Morton, post-naturalism is intertwined with post-humanism and a dismissal of anthropocentrism. Latour advocates for a ‘flat ontology’ that places human beings on a par with not only organic but also inorganic, lifeless nature. In his ‘actor-network theory,’ everything plays the role of an agent or ‘actor’ with equal force and explanatory efficacy in relation to phenomena and entities in the world.30

Latour’s work was initially rooted within the field of science studies. Revolting against traditional theory of science, science studies committed itself to investigating scientific production of knowledge in the same way that anthropologists investigate a foreign culture. The focus during the early years of science studies was the social practices of scientific collectives. Latour soon detected that traditional social constructivism took the social to be the explanation for the natural. The alternative he proposed was to allow constructivism to operate in both directions: from society to nature as well as from nature to society. However, he ended up dismissing this dualism and replaced it with his theory of the flat network, in which everything acts on everything else in the network. In We Have Never Been Modern,31 Latour’s central thesis is precisely that nature and society (culture, politics) cannot be separated because the world contains nothing but hybrids of the two. With this acknowledgment, Latour thought he could distance himself from sociological or naturalistic reductionism, as well as from anti-realism and postmodern deconstruction.32 In Politics of Nature,33 Latour discusses ecology, intending to show that contemporary ecology labors under the illusion that we can produce objective knowledge that mirrors nature. On this basis, contemporary ecology wants to control eco-politics. Latour’s alternative, an “authentic political ecology,” demands the dismissal of the concept of nature. His argument is that “‘nature’ is made … precisely to eviscerate politics.”34 Latour’s solution calls for a politicization of the theory of knowledge in order to integrate nature and politics, object and subject, facts and values.35

In the case of Vogel, we observed that constructivism tends to undermine the realism of his theory (this was the ‘idealistic’ pitfall of his constructivism). Similarly, the constructivism characterizing Latour’s science studies undermines the idea of scientific objectivity. Together with the work of numerous other scholars in science studies, Latour’s work has had the general effect of questioning the authority of empirical science. Since the 1990s, science studies is alleged to have had severe consequences for climate science and its claim that climate change is a present-day fact due to anthropogenic factors. Agents from conservative think tanks and the oil industry have invoked science studies to disqualify climate science, calling it politicized and hence untrustworthy.36

In 2004, Latour published a paper in which he discusses his possible responsibility for this alarming development.37 He concedes that he played an instrumental role in climate denial, even though he insists this was never his intention.38 His failure, he admits, was to believe that he could fight naive objectivism and empiricism by getting away from facts. However, his intention “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.”39 Latour adds that even though matters of fact are real, they are “only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern.”40

In Facing Gaia, Latour embraces James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which seems to be an ‘earthly’ kind of ersatz concept of nature.41 Latour had previously mocked Lovelock for what he considered an ascetic, neo-Christian concept of nature acting as a vengeful goddess who reinstalls the balance that human beings have disturbed.42 In Facing Gaia, by contrast, it is the concept of nature itself that is reproached for its theological origins.43 Latour makes a great effort to substantiate that it is pure prejudice, combined with Lovelock’s somewhat clumsy prose, that led his followers to believe that Gaia is a kind of vengeful goddess of nature. In reality, Gaia is “the least religious entity produced by Western science,” Latour assures the reader.44

Whether or not we accept his interpretation of Lovelock, Latour takes an important step in literally bringing the concept of Gaia down to earth. He wants to use the concept to fight against a classical construction of nature in which it is one pole in a dualism where the other pole is the supernatural, the spiritual, or the divine. The claim that this construction has “de-animated” nature and transformed it into inert matter is well known. Simultaneously, it has “overanimated” the other pole—consciousness, subject, culture, and society45—and given it a noble or semi-transcendental status. The dualism feeds the illusion of a “dead” nature slavishly following invariant, transcendent laws of causality that can be known “objectively” by a subject that does not see itself as part of nature. It is this idea of an inert nature that many eco-philosophers hold responsible for the environmental problems we face. Latour’s alternative is, first, to reject dualisms (soul-body, consciousness-nature, culture-nature, society-nature) and re-animate the world; and second, to criticize the idea of causal laws for having transferred all causal agency on Earth to an original cause, much like the divine “first mover” of Aristotle or the creator god of Christianity. In this way, Latour reasons, the notion of causality has made the earth inactive.46

Latour’s idea is that if we reject the emphasis on causal chains, there is hope of returning some degree of agency to worldly entities, to re-animate the world. These entities could then be interpreted as ‘actors’ that are evenly distributed and mutually affect each other throughout the network they constitute. Latour warns against returning to an interpretation of the network as a system, a whole, or a totality of actors.47 The aim of this warning is, partly, to block any attempt to trace agency back to the previously mentioned ‘first mover,’ and partly to distance himself from all interpretations of the network as some kind of ‘invisible hand’ that supposedly coordinates all actors in order to reinstall harmony.48 Such a holistic interpretation would transform the network into some kind of external, divine actor, Latour believes. Furthermore, it threatens to reinstall the false idea of nature as a homeostasis with the ability to compensate for any imbalance. On this specific point, Latour is in alignment with Timothy Morton: the idea of nature as an equilibrium can potentially have lasting negative consequences for humanity’s own viability.49

Latour’s secularization of Gaia supports his characterization of the concept as “worldly”50 and his description of humans, living on Gaia, as “earthbound.”51 Such integration of human beings in the world is a prerequisite for ecological thinking. What Latour does not mention is that this integration was prepared for by a number of philosophers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some of whom are even favorites of Latour. They found it necessary to move beyond classical dualistic ontology for a number of different reasons, including epistemological reasons. This led them to re-interpret, but not to abandon, nature.52 So why does Latour insist on abandoning nature? Does he feel obligated by his own trajectory of attacks on the concept?

The idea of the hybrid character of nature and culture, object and subject, that was found in We Have Never Been Modern is largely absent from Facing Gaia. However, the fundamentally anti-dualistic idea that natural events are indiscernible from human actions is still cherished by Latour. Nevertheless, he frequently refers to nature in Facing Gaia, although he often places it in inverted commas. Especially in the book’s fourth chapter, it is clear that Latour’s abolition of the concept of nature is contradicted by his approval of an alternative concept of nature. He quite openly admits this himself: “the old role of ‘nature’ has to be completely redefined.”53

The theme of the fourth chapter of Facing Gaia is the Anthropocene period, during which humans leave their geological mark and the brief history of culture is integrated in the deep history of geology. Latour refuses to call for the unification of human beings and nature since the term ‘unification’ implies a previous distinction between the two—a distinction whose existence Latour has rejected since We Have Never Been Modern. In Facing Gaia, his suggestion is that if we are to understand the Anthropocene, it is not enough to say that humans and nature in reality form a unity; we must completely “‘go beyond’ this division.”54 However, it is exactly this ‘going beyond’ that Latour himself is unable to do when describing the new situation in the Anthropocene. Explaining why the geo-historical forces of the Anthropocene differ from the old geological forces, he is compelled to conclude that the latter today are “fused” with human actions,55 implying that this was not previously the case. The lurking contradiction becomes even more apparent in the next sentence: “Where we were dealing earlier with a ‘natural’ phenomenon, at every point now we meet the ‘Anthropos’—at least in the sublunary region that is ours—and, wherever we follow human footprints, we discover modes of relation to things that had formerly been located in the field of nature.”56

Words like ‘natural’ and ‘Anthropos’ are placed in inverted commas by Latour, but he de facto recognizes their opposition. Remarkable is the introduction of a new distinction between a sublunary, earthly domain and a—presumably—celestial, heavenly domain.57 The upshot of this divide is that Latour by implication accepts the concept of nature, but delimits it to the parts of the universe that are outside human influence.58 Once again, nature seems to exist for Latour, but only in outer space and in Earth’s interior—out of reach for humans. In spite of all he has said, Latour here accepts the opposition between man’s agency and nature. He even introduces a regionalization of nature and culture—something that he himself has warned against.59

It is undeniable that human influence is greater the closer we get to the biosphere, but it would be preposterous to try to grasp the ecology of the biosphere without considering the influence of outside forces. It is as if Latour believes that following the onset of the Anthropocene, all the old natural forces, such as the solar wind, plate tectonics, and interplanetary gravitation, are canceled. Why this bizarre way of thinking? Does Latour want to preserve his total hybridization of humans and nature in one realm at least? Or is it a consequence of Latour’s frequent inability to see that the coordination or fusion of two actors does not cancel their separate existence?60 Contrary to Vogel, it seems Latour has no confidence in the subsistence of natural agency after the rise of human agency.

5 Latour’s Anthropology

As indicated, Latour lumps culture, society, subject, and humanity together in opposition to nature. Consequently, the rug is pulled out from under these concepts when nature is dismissed. Accordingly, Latour shares the post-humanism of Morton and other ecological thinkers. The humanism and human exceptionalism they attack is rooted in the hierarchical order installed by Christianity. This order dictates that the creator has bestowed human beings with a supernatural soul and thereby given them the idea that they are invulnerable to mundane hardship. Descartes’s dualism and his dream of humankind as “master and lord of nature”61 is usually seen as the epitome of this fatal anthropology. Post-humanists do not limit themselves to revising this anthropology through secularization and by bringing humans closer to nature. Rather, they insist that there is nothing about human beings that justifies any distinction from non-humans.

Latour’s flat ontology and the so-called “principle of symmetry”62 constitute his strategy vis-à-vis humanism. The ontology warrants his attempt to animate or even humanize non-human entities and to de-animate human beings. Latour is aware that the first step, animation or humanization, is liable to result in a classical vitalistic view of nature—a view that he claims not to endorse. However, this does not stop him from humanizing a river by attributing to it a will and desires,63 and even suggesting that it is emotionally “moved.”64 Concerning human beings, his strategy is to deny them independent existence and autonomy. He refuses to accept intentionality, will, and autonomy as explanations for the actions of human beings. He even intimates that these concepts are simply fictions that we attribute to human beings.65 The initiative for action does not originate from the human subject, Latour believes, but from the tension between exterior factors: “it is the tension that makes the actor, and not the way actors have been endowed with a more or less plausible set of attitudes.”66 Latour backs this allegation by claiming: “these agents—that is, what they are—are defined only through their performances—that is, after observers have succeeded in recording how they behave.”67 The model for such empirical observations, Latour continues, is the scientific laboratory report in which “the character of the agents mobilized cannot be described except through the actions by means of which they have to be slowly pinned down.”68 Following this formal approach—the outside and detached observer’s approach—Latour is able to designate all participants in an activity with the neutral term ‘actor,’ without taking into consideration whether they are humans or something else.69

Latour advances no arguments to support his allegation that agents—whether objects of nature or human subjects—are their behavior, and simply observes that it is “extremely difficult to make this distinction in practice.”70 In fact, the research methodology determines Latour’s ontology. By applying a behaviorist approach, ‘pretending’ not to have any ‘insider’ knowledge of human beings and only observing them from the ‘outside’—a purportedly disinterested and objective position—it is easy to neutralize differences between human and non-human activity. From this viewpoint, a human being is nothing but its outward actions, and its subjectivity or consciousness is just an ignorable black box, transforming input into output.

This, of course, is not a serious procedure for substantiating an ontology. To make it even easier to do away with any differences between humans and nature, throughout Facing Gaia Latour treats such differences as if the only option is to represent them exactly the way Descartes did some four hundred years ago when he presented his dualistic ontology. Latour describes a dualism with mutually exclusive sides in which there is no possible intertwining of nature and soul. He argues that supporters of this dualism regard human consciousness as completely separate from all natural bindings and regard the human subject as “master of himself and of the universe.”71 However, this is a worldview that has very few adherents today, if it ever did.72

Of course, the elimination of human beings has consequences for the role that Latour ascribes to ethics, politics, and pedagogy in the Anthropocene. First, Latour claims that the human species should no longer be regarded as a collective agent in geo-history, and hence cannot be held responsible for the Anthropocene.73 Latour’s justification for this is that “the Anthropos of the Anthropocene is nothing but the dangerous fiction of a universalized agent.”74 His idea is that the “human being” and “human species” are epistemological abstractions from their actual performance; furthermore—detached from the earth, the territory, and history75—they are words designating nothing real. Latour believes that he himself can avoid this universalization by using words like “Earthbound”76 rather than ‘human being.’ This word, however, is no more connected to the terrain than the term ‘human being’ is, and in fact it is just as much the result of abstraction and universalization. The same illusion surfaces when Latour claims that his network theory limits him to talking only of “well-connected locality,”77 with no pretensions to universality. However, the term ‘locality’ designates any locality whatsoever, and is thus no less universal and detached from actual terrain than any other concept.

Another reservation Latour has toward the concept “Anthropocene” is that it does not differentiate between inhabitants of industrialized and non-industrialized countries, nor between the inhabitants of capitalist and socialist countries.78 Latour is right to call for a differentiation between “several distinct peoples79 with different ecological footprints reflecting different political interests and responsibilities. But, again, this has nothing to do with an innate defect in universal concepts, as is clear from the fact that Latour himself uses universals like ‘actor,’ ‘Earthbound,’ and ‘people’ to repudiate universals he dislikes.

At a certain point in Facing Gaia, Latour seems to realize that his rejection of the notion of human beings was a little premature. He declares that he recognizes and even cherishes the ideal of universality. What he is against is only “the notion of humans prematurely unified.”80 He now seeks a “new understanding of the notion of species,” a “realistic”81 universality in the sense of a notion that “make[s] room for collectives in conflict with one another.”82 However, after admitting this quiet acceptance of a universal concept of human beings, Latour relapses and rejects it once again.

What prevents him from accepting it more consistently is his goal of politicizing ecology. He follows the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, who said that conflict with external foes is what defines a society or a collective of people. Without enemies and “mutual ‘existential negation’”83 there are no collectives and, accordingly, no territories. Moreover, the conflict or war has to be between two or more collectives of people, and not between human beings and nature. Latour specifies that “the Humans living in the epoch of the Holocene are in conflict with the Earthbound of the Anthropocene.”84 Without these wars, Latour continues, ecology is de-politicized. ‘People’ will fight each other for territories without any prospect of reconciliation, because reconciliation would mean de-politicization. Ironic as it may be, Latour’s post-naturalism and post-humanism are very close to Thomas Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature as a “war of all against all,” except that Latour’s war is perpetual.85

Another consequence of Latour’s stance toward humanity is the rejection of education as a way to solve ecological problems.86 Pedagogy appeals to human comprehension and to the illusion that conflicts can be solved by learning about nature. Therefore, Latour’s political ecology must be “post-epistemological,”87 and from this he draws a rather frightening consequence: “Never again will the complex set of sciences of nature that constitutes climatology be capable of playing the role of ultimate, indisputable arbiter.”88

The dismantling of humans, nature, and knowledge makes it hard to see why and for whom Latour wrote Facing Gaia. He seems to have completely obstructed his project of laying the groundwork for adjusting to the new climatic regime, as is promised on the back cover of the book. Nevertheless, the book gives a few hints of what a viable ecological epistemology should look like. At one point Latour outlines a model in which the knowing subject is not a Cartesian spectator, but posited inside the world: bodily, sensitive, perceptive, moved, vulnerable, responsive, and without the impulse to take the Earth, but rather to be “taken by it.”89 However, outlining this model adds to the ambivalence of Facing Gaia, as the model looks precisely like the idea of a more ‘human’ and non-reductive approach to nature that Latour had warned against earlier in the book.90 In Down to Earth, Latour is more willing to compromise than in Facing Gaia. He even embraces terms like ‘objectivity,’ ‘rationality,’ and ‘realism’ as long as they can be given a more “earthly” interpretation.91 Furthermore, he now seems more likely to imply that only the traditional concept of nature—“nature-as-universe”—is meaningless and should be replaced with a new concept of nature: “nature-as-process.”92 However, he refuses to seek assistance from philosophy to clarify his epistemology, insisting that for philosophy tout court, “to know is to know from the outside.”93

For some reason, Latour seems to have failed to notice that several philosophers of the twentieth century specifically broke away from objectivistic models of knowledge and sought alternatives to the Galilean-Cartesian epistemology.94

6 Body and Nature in the Works of Gernot Böhme

In German philosophy, attempts to identify the costs of the Galilean-Cartesian epistemology have been undertaken at least since Kant. His critique and limitation of ‘pure’ reason identified the ‘Other’ of reason, that is, what was excluded by an objectivistic epistemology: sensory perceptions, aesthetics, life, organic nature. The radical critique of reason in Nietzsche, combined with Freud’s critique of the autonomy of consciousness—human beings are not ‘masters in their own house’—inspired Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment. In this book, it is claimed that reason excludes aspects of reality from itself and then oppresses them. Dissatisfied with the rather aporetic answers this book gave, Gernot Böhme sought some potential gains by including insights from the so-called ‘new phenomenology’ of Hermann Schmitz.95 The focus of this branch of phenomenology was the experience of the body’s attunement to its surrounding situation.96

For Gernot Böhme, the alternative to rationalism and Enlightenment is not irrationalism. After all, the radical critique of reason is exercised by reason. Neither reason nor knowledge should be abandoned. What has to be changed is “our understanding of ourselves, on the one hand, and our relationship with nature on the other.”97 This is the only possible way to make reason incorporate a relationship with its Other. It implies that “work in philosophical anthropology and the philosophy of nature has to be undertaken.”98 The anthropological work entails a recognition of the reasoning subject’s dependence on its bodily existence and its feeling of its presence in the non-human surroundings. The work on the philosophy of nature implies the overcoming of the monopoly of the Galilean-Cartesian idea of nature as an assembly of objects. It too provides a description of an alternative aesthetic-atmospheric idea of nature. In both works the human body is the intermediary: being both human and natural, being both myself and nature at the same time.

Böhme’s idea is that nature is originally given in the experience of ourselves or, to be more precise, in our affective experience of our own bodies. Böhme even defines the body as the “nature that we are ourselves.”99 This kind of experience—the feel—is neither a construct of the subject, nor an experience of a distinct object, as the experiencer and the experienced are identical.

Bodily experiences are not merely experiences of being active and moving, as assumed by some phenomenologists of the body. Böhme highlights experiences of passively being moved—what he calls ‘pathic’ experiences—that we do not control. Such experiences, known as feelings, moods, or sensations, are considered more or less ‘blind’ to objectivistic models of comprehension. Böhme, however, attributes cognition to them.

Pathic experiences emerge without our initiative. This is why we perceive them as ‘natural,’ just like we label environmental occurrences without human intervention ‘natural.’ These pathic experiences are what we sense and feel: pain, coldness, hunger, thirst, well-being, vigor, lust, unrest, uneasiness, and so on. Such perceptions can be rather insistent and are almost experienced as something foreign that takes control of us. At the same time, however, they are something in us that belongs to us and something to which we have to relate and respond. Hunger or pain, for instance, can rip and gnaw at us, but it is still we ourselves who are hungering or feeling pain and have to deal with it. And when we breathe, right after an exhalation the inhalation starts “by itself” and gives us the experience of being carried by something which conveniently can be called “nature.”100 Nature is not just the “big outside,” but it is also in the center of our own identity and bodily existence.101

Obviously, the body Böhme calls attention to is not the physiological body-object but what we could call the ‘felt body.’ From phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty we have learned to differentiate between two concepts of body. The physiological body is the body that, like any other object, is accessible from the outside and by everyone. The ‘felt body,’ however, is only accessible by the subject that has or rather is the body. Merleau-Ponty uses expressions such as “one’s own body” and the “living body” to distinguish the body gained in a “non-thetic consciousness” (i.e., non-objectifying consciousness) from the physiological body.102

Now, Böhme does not take over Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of the body but is guided, to a large extent, by Hermann Schmitz’s body-phenomenology. A few comments can explain what Böhme finds deficient in Merleau-Ponty’s body-phenomenology.

To Merleau-Ponty the living body is the “embodiment” of the subject or the consciousness.103 The French term incarnation, translated “embodiment,” indicates that Merleau-Ponty conceives of the body from the standpoint of an active ‘I’ or consciousness. This again indicates influence from Cartesian dualism, according to which the soul or consciousness plays the active part that animates the passive body-object and makes the human being exist.104 To Merleau-Ponty, the conscious ‘I’ is agency: “Consciousness is originarily not an ‘I think that,’ but rather an ‘I can.’”105 All in all, the body is reduced to a passive medium or instrument for grasping objects outside the subject: “Consciousness is being toward the thing through the intermediary of the body.”106

In Böhme’s eyes, Merleau-Ponty’s concept of embodiment is precisely what conceals the felt body. It overlooks the fundamental pathic experience of being bodily, that is, of being moved by the body, which again is the crucial prerequisite for experiencing the body as the nature we are.107 Contributing to this problem is the doctrine of intentionality that Merleau-Ponty shares with Husserlian phenomenology. Intentionality splits consciousness into a subject and an object and imposes a distance that covers up the body that I am, the felt body, in favor of a bodily object that I “have.”108 To Böhme, intentional consciousness is but a specific type of consciousness. Fundamentally, consciousness is a “being with,” or simply a being. He exemplifies this claim with the feeling of my hand. When I feel my hand I do not necessarily represent or depict my hand in my consciousness. I am rather conscious of myself in the hand, or I am being the hand. In this way consciousness of the felt body (“Leibbewusstsein”) is a non-intentional consciousness and, contrary to what we normally assume, this consciousness is not a mental phenomenon, but itself a condition of the felt body (“ein Zustand des Leibes”).109 From this base an intentional consciousness with a differentiated subject and object can be developed or unfolded.

The felt body is the basis for our sense of identity and for our ability to identify with our physical body and control its movements. The feel of the body tells us how we are, or how we find or experience ourselves in the surroundings. It gives us the immediate perception of the existence and presence of the environment, but without telling us precisely what it is that is present.110 Böhme describes such feelings of involvement with and presence in the environment as ‘moods’ or ‘atmospheres.’ From moods and atmospheres, a gliding transition to proper sensations of the environment is possible. It starts with a synesthetic sensation and later can be developed into differentiated, intentional sensations of individual objects in the environment. It is safe to say that the perception of external nature builds on a basic feeling of being and of being present in one’s surroundings—a fundamental sense that the ‘I’ and nature, subject and object, or felt body and surroundings are not detached.

Like Morton and Latour, Böhme criticizes the sharp distinction between humans and nature and the idea of human beings as fully self-reliant intellectual agents that operate independent of nature, be it the nature we ourselves are or the nature we are not. However, Böhme does not follow Morton, Latour, or the post-humanists in their phasing-out of subjectivity. Instead, he considers the subject as relying on a basis in bodily self-experience. As a result, Böhme explains the genesis of the ‘I’ (subject) in the same way as he explains the genesis of things (objects)—as entities that are abstracted or differentiated from atmosphere-like experiences, emanating from the existence and presence of things with our bodies. To put it another way, a strong ‘I’-consciousness builds on a kind of distancing comprehension that operates on the basis of bodily non-distant sensations and feelings.

Böhme acknowledges that it is possible to ‘style’ the self as a fully independent individual able to control itself, its thoughts, and its actions. This is the rationalistic ideal of the human being that perceives itself as possessing technical mastery over nature: an autonomous ‘I.’ To such a being, the fact that nature can ‘strike back’ may be a shocking occurrence. Böhme points to the alternative, a more vague, more ‘pathic’ self, as his suggestion for understanding human identity. He calls it the “sovereign human being.”111 This self, however, is not pure passivity. Rather, its thinking and acting occurs in response to the atmosphere and mood of the body when affected by its environment. Thinking is initiated when something “comes to mind,” and actions are initiated when something is “taken in” or “embarked on.”112 Böhme’s assertion is that the rediscovery of responsiveness as the fundamental experience should eliminate the rationalistic idea of knowledge as constructed or constituted independently and from the outside of nature. Accordingly, we can regard Latour’s proposal of a post-epistemological ecology as irrelevant.

Böhme is not unfamiliar with Latour’s idea of attributing agency to non-human entities. Evidently, nature has to be active to be experienced when our basic experiences are ‘pathic.’ Böhme identifies this agency with concepts like ‘atmospheres’ and ‘ecstasies,’ which do not work causally on human beings but work through their aesthetic presence in space, that is, how they appear to us. Atmospheric and ecstatic phenomena are not accessible to science, however, because the focus of science is practical: what we can do with nature. To achieve that, science isolates entities from their situation, turns them into “objects,” and inserts them into causal relations with other things.113 Through experimenting and testing, preferably in the laboratory, we can learn to obtain the effect by producing the cause, thereby obtaining limited technological mastery.

Modern philosophy in general has not been interested in the question of the aesthetic presence of things. The idea of things and their properties has dominated ontology. According to Böhme, the concept of a ‘property’ has been interpreted as something that a thing ‘has’ and that defines it, delimiting it vis-à-vis other things. The elimination of the secondary qualities by Galileo and Descartes only amplified this “closure” of the thing, as Böhme calls it.114 His suggestion is to focus on the presence of things, on how they “step out of themselves” and make themselves present to human beings. “Ecstasies” are such forms of presence.115 Spatiality, voluminosity, appearance, physiognomy, color, and other sensible qualities like sound, voice, and smell are all ecstasies of things. Ecstasies do not determine what the things are, but rather state how their existence is presented, or even how their existence “happens” as “this there.”116 Ecstasies are modes of being of natural entities, and they are experienced thanks to our bodily existence and spatial presence.

7 Conclusion

The philosopher Kate Soper has analyzed the ontological or ‘metaphysical’ problems that ecology raises. She is fully aware of all the problems and ambiguities that are hidden in our concept of nature and supports the critique of a conservative use of the concept to oppose racial, feminist, sexual, or social emancipation. On the other hand, Soper claims that if the concept of nature is abandoned entirely, all of these liberation movements will undermine their own case. The same applies to the ecological movement.

In any discourse on the relation between man and nature, says Soper, “the conceptual distinction remains indispensable” between the two concepts.117 This is the case both when the distinction is blamed for being vague and when it is entirely rejected; we would not understand what was vague or rejected if the difference between man and nature was not implied. The reason for this, according to Soper, is that “‘nature’ is the idea through which we conceptualize what is ‘other’ to ourselves.”118 When we discuss the human-nature relation, it is not the distinction itself that is in focus, Soper claims; it is where to draw the line that is negotiated.119 She underlines that to make humans exclusively responsible for their ecological footprints entails accepting that humans have species-specific features.120 If we do not accept such exceptional features, it makes no more sense to demand of humans that they change their way of life than to demand of magpies to stop eating the eggs of songbirds or to ask rats not to eat from granaries.

This is the reason why the theories put forward by the three nature deniers, discussed above, all run aground. For Vogel, the concept of nature reemerges in the middle of his argument when he needs something to set a limit to the power of human constructivism. Morton’s criticism of the Romantic concept of nature ends up abandoning the concept of nature entirely and thereby removes any possibility of us having a relation to nature, let alone improving it. The strange result is that Morton knows perfectly well what should be done to curb climate change but cannot make the necessary pedagogical or political demands. Meanwhile, Bruno Latour seemingly believes that the only concept of nature is the Cartesian concept in an absolutistic interpretation. His discomfort with this concept and its ambiguities leads him to reject it or, alternatively, to humanize it under the name of Gaia while simultaneously de-humanizing human beings. The result is in both cases the destabilization of humankind and the impossibility of assigning responsibility to humans for the environmental problems we currently face and their solution. The perspective Latour outlines for a future politics of nature is a permanent state of war.

Gernot Böhme presents a philosophy of nature rooted in a ‘corporal turn.’ In return, he gains a concept of nature that includes human beings but also includes the agency of appearing with aesthetic or sensuous presence in space, as well as with causal powers. Correspondingly, his concept of human beings pictures them as natural without reducing them and depriving them of consciousness or reason. Having such abilities, humans are granted the relative freedom of relating to and responding to nature, whether their own or not, and deciding whether to enhance it or reduce it.


Robert Boyle, Franҫois Voltaire, and David Hume all made efforts to exterminate the “obscure” concept of nature. Cf. Robert Spaemann, Philosophische Essays (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994).


Steven Vogel, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 20.


Steven Vogel, Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 2016), 95.


Aristotle was among the first to express the interpretation of nature as autonomous. In his Physics, a natural being is said to have “within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness,” wheras “products of art … have no innate impulse to change.” However, Aristotle continues, in so far as the products of art are composed of natural materials, they “do have such an impulse, and just to that extent.” Aristotle, Physics, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 1, trans. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 192b12–192b23, (accessed June 19, 2022). Vogel refers to Aristotle’s Physics, but he seems to have been inattentive to Aristotle’s simplistic unification of nature with human impact.


For more on Vogel, see Sune Frølund, “Environmentalism without Nature? Steven Vogel’s Post-Natural Environmental Philosophy,” Nordicum-Mediterraneum 15, no. 3 (2020), (accessed January 19, 2022).


Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).


Vogel also identified this ambivalence in the concept of nature.


Morton, Ecology without Nature, 16.


Ibid., 17.


Ibid., 14.


Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (London: Pelican Penguin Books, 2018).


Timothy Morton, “What is Dark Ecology?,” Changing Weathers, episode 48, 2015, (accessed January 19, 2022); Morton, Being Ecological, 72. In the latter, Morton in fact traces the concept of nature all the way back to the Paleolithic (pre-Neolithic) period in which early hominids, according to the author, developed an anthropocentric view of nature. This concept of nature has surprising similarities with nature as depicted in what Morton ironically calls “modern postcard aesthetics” (25).


Ibid., 26.


Morton, “Dark Ecology.”


Morton, Being Ecological, 126, 208.


Morton, “Dark Ecology”; Morton, Being Ecological, 27.


Martin J. S. Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).


George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864; repr., Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).


Morton, Being Ecological, 77, 152.


Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).


Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 23, 82.


Morton, Being Ecological, 34.


Ibid., 27.


Ibid., 17.


Ibid., 16–17.


Ibid., 208.


Ibid., 108, 109.


Ibid., 215.


Ibid., 17.


Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). Originally published as Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: Essais d’anthropologie symmétrique (Paris: La Découverte, 1991).


Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 6.


Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). Originally published as Politiques de la nature (Paris: La Découverte, 1999).


Latour, Politics of Nature, 19–20.


Ibid., 28.


David Demeritt, “Science Studies, Climate Change and the Prospects for Constructivist Critique,” Economy and Society 35, no. 3 (2006): 453–479; Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes, “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 1–10.


Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–248.


Latour, however, has not refrained from criticism or “debunking” in later writings. Cf. Nathan Lee, “Postcritique and the Form of the Question: Whose Critique Has Run Out of Steam?,” Cultural Critique 108 (2020): 150–176; Oliver Kauffmann, “Remarks on Science, Epistemology and Education in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth,” Nordicum-Mediterraneum 15, no. 3 (2020), (accessed January 19, 2022).


Latour, “Why Has Critique,” 231 (Latour’s italics).


Ibid., 232. One of Latour’s main points is that facts are always political, so it is peculiar to see him blame facts for being too political in the quoted passage. Moreover, if facts are political renderings of matters of concern, what are matters of concern? Unpolitical? Objective? The same double standard is also present in Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017). Originally published as Face à Gaïa: Huit conferences sur le nouveau régime climatique (Paris: La Découverte, 2015). On the one hand, Latour dismisses the idea that nature could be experienced neutrally, free of values and non-politically. On the other hand, he criticizes the concept of nature for being a “truncated, simplified, exaggeratedly moralistic, excessively polemical, and prematurely political version of the otherness of the world.” Latour, Facing Gaia, 36.


In the third lecture of Facing Gaia, Latour refers to “Gaia, a (finally secular) figure for nature.” Ibid., 75.


Bruno Latour, “To Modernize or to Ecologize? That’s the Question,” in Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium, ed. Noel Castree and Bruce Braun (London: Routledge, 1998), 221–242; Latour, “‘It’s Development, Stupid!’ Or: How to Modernize Modernization,” in Postenvironmentalism, ed. James Proctor (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 2008).


Nature has “inherited … all the functions of the all-seeing and all-encompassing God of the old days.” Latour, Facing Gaia, 46.


Ibid., 87.


Ibid., 85. Latour generally lumps these four notions together as if they have one and the same meaning. This allows him to advance some very generalizing and radical theses, but it is also the source of many ambiguities and inconsistencies in his theory. Cf. Arne Johan Vetlesen, Cosmologies of the Anthropocene: Panpsychism, Animism, and the Limits of Posthumanism (Oxon: Routledge, 2019), 223.


The causality Latour speaks of is the early modern type of “mechanistic” causality that only allows for one type of cause: the efficient cause. With only this cause, the present is reduced to the passive effect of a past efficient cause. Aristotelian physics with its fourfold causality did not picture nature as inert, and several modern natural philosophers have taken up antiquity’s interpretation of causality. However, Latour does not mention this but equates causality as such with efficient causality and rejects it.


Latour, Facing Gaia, 87.


Ibid., 134.


This danger was highlighted in 1967 by Clarence J. Glacken in Traces of the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).


Latour, Facing Gaia, 87.


Ibid., 38.


William James, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead all have an anti-dualistic philosophy of nature. Martin Heidegger is another anti-dualistic thinker, though not cherished by Latour.


Latour, Facing Gaia, 120.








Ibid., 107, 239. The Aristotelian-Scholastic physics divided nature into two distinct fields, the celestial and the terrestrial, each with its specific qualities. One of the merits of early modern physics was to show that the laws governing earthly movements also applied to heavenly bodies. See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958). Latour seems to reintroduce the antique bifurcation.


In Down to Earth, Latour names this area “the critical zone.” It encompasses the space between the upper strata of Earth and the stratosphere, i.e., the zone in which traces of human beings are discernible. Cf. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 54. Originally published as Où atterrir? Comment s’orientier en politique (Paris: La Découverte, 2017).


One of Latour’s principal claims is that a classical failure of ecology is to consider nature and culture to be “domains that are presumed actually to exist in the real world.” Facing Gaia, 19.


Cf. Andreas Malm’s criticism of hybridism in Latour and others in The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London: Verso, 2018), 44.


René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 142.


Latour, Facing Gaia, 54.


Ibid., 53.


Ibid., 59.


Surprisingly, Latour himself attributes full autonomy and freedom to human beings when he accuses them of insensitivity to their own role in the current sixth mass extinction. Facing Gaia, 191; cf. Vetlesen, Cosmologies, 217.


Latour, Facing Gaia, 53 (Latour’s italics).


Ibid., 56 (Latour’s italics).


Ibid. (Latour’s italics).


Latour builds on the formalism of Algirdas Greimas’s and Jacques Fontanelle’s actant model, originally presented in Sémiotique des passions (1991).


Ibid., 57.




Note that Descartes himself is well aware that in the real world, soul and body “form a unit.” René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 2, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 56. For a critique of Latour’s absolutistic man-nature-dualism, see Claes Tängh Wrangel and Amar Causevic, “Critiquing Latour’s Explanation of Climate Change Denial: Moving beyond the Modernity/Anthropocene Binary,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 50, no. 1 (2021): 214.


Latour, Facing Gaia, 121, 245.


Ibid., 246.


Ibid., 122.


Ibid., 248.


Ibid., 136.


Ibid., 121. Similar arguments are found in Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 197–222, and in Jason W. Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (Oakland: pm Press, 2016). Moore prefers (Andreas Malm’s) concept: “the Capitalocene.” For further alternatives to “Anthropocene,” see Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016).


Latour, Facing Gaia, 122.


Ibid., 247 (Latour’s italics).


Ibid., 245.


Ibid., 247.


Ibid., 238.


Ibid., 248.


Ibid., 227.


Ibid., 225. Latour confirms the dismantling of pedagogics in Latour, Down to Earth, 55.


Latour, Facing Gaia, 144, 265.


Ibid., 238.


Ibid., 251 (Latour’s italics).


Early in Facing Gaia, Latour had refused “to dream of a more subjective, more ‘human,’ less ‘reductive’ approach to the same ‘nature.’” Facing Gaia, 37. Latour issues a similar warning in Down to Earth (48), arguing that by humanizing science we lose the possibility of assistance from the exact sciences when things are getting dire. In practice, it seems, Latour has no reservations about letting climate science be the “ultimate arbiter”!


Latour, Down to Earth, 52.


Ibid., 55.


Ibid., 68. Notice that precisely this idea of detached knowledge was Latour’s recommendation when the topic was acquiring knowledge of human beings!


Some of Latour’s favorite philosophers—Dewey and Whitehead—would disagree that “to know is to know from the outside.”


Sune Frølund, “Gernot Böhme’s Sketch for a Weather Phenomenology,” Danish Yearbook of Philosophy 51 (2018): 2–3.


Hermann Schmitz, Rudolf Owen Müllan, and Jan Slaby, “Emotions Outside the Box—the New Phenomenology of Feeling and Corporeality,” Phenomenology and Cognitive Science 10, no. 2 (2011): 241–259; Hermann Schmitz, New Phenomenology: A Brief Introduction, trans. Rudolf Owen Müllan (Milan: Mimesis International, 2019); Schmitz, Kort indføring i den nye fænomenologi, trans. Sune Frølund (Aalborg: Aalborg Universitetsforlag, 2017).


Gernot Böhme, “Beyond the Radical Critique of Reason,” in Reason and Its Other: Rationality in German Philosophy and Culture, ed. Dieter Freundlieb and Wayne Hudson (Oxford: Berg, 1993), 93.




Gernot Böhme, Die Natur vor uns: Naturphilosophie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Kusterdingen: Die graue Edition, 2002), 45, 111; Böhme, “The Concept of Body as the Nature We Ourselves Are,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, n.s., 24, no. 3 (2010): 224–238; Böhme, Der Leib: Die Natur, die wir selbst sind (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2019), 9–10.


Böhme, Leib, 13.


Cf. Sune Frølund, “Naturalness as an Educational Value,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 50, no. 4 (2016): 655–668.


Cf. the terms corps propre (“one’s own body”) and corps vivant (“living body”) in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), 61, 67; et: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 50, 55. Böhme uses Husserl’s terms: “Körper” (for the physiological body) and “Leib” (for the felt body).


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 53, 156, 191; Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie, 64, 180, 216.


Merleau-Ponty seems to use the term “soul” synonymously with “existence.” Both terms in the following quotations designate an activity that animates the object-like body: “The union of the soul and body is not established through an arbitrary decree that unites two mutually exclusive terms, one a subject and the other an object. It is accomplished each moment in the movement of existence.” Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 91. “[E]xistence accomplishes itself in the body.” “Neither the body nor existence could pass for the original model of the human being, since each one presupposes the other and since the body is existence as congealed or generalized, and since existence is a perpetual embodiment.” Ibid. 169.


Ibid., 139.


Ibid., 140.


Böhme, Leib, 12, 100; Gernot Böhme, Bewusstseinsformen (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2014), 131.


Böhme, Bewusstseinsformen, 11; Gernot Böhme, Ich-Selbst: Über die Formation des Subjekts (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2012), 200.


Böhme, Ich-Selbst, 205.


Gernot Böhme, Einführung in die Philosophie: Weltweisheit. Lebensform. Wissenschaft (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1994), 211.


Böhme, Bewusstseinsformen, 194; Böhme, Ich-Selbst, 7.


“[Z]u denken heist: sich etwas einfallen lassen, und handeln: sich auf etwas einlassen.” Böhme, Ich-Selbst, 17.


Böhme, Bewusstseinsformen, 109; Gernot Böhme, Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Ästhetik (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013), 231; Gernot Böhme, Atmospheric Architectures: The Aesthetics of Felt Spaces, ed. and trans. Anna-Christina Engels-Schwarzpaul (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 42; Gernot Böhme, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. and trans. Jean-Paul Thibaud (London: Routledge, 2017), 89ff.


Böhme, Atmosphäre, 233; Böhme, Atmospheric Architectures, 43.


Böhme, Atmosphäre, 237; Böhme, Atmospheric Architectures, 46.


Böhme, Atmosphäre, 244; Böhme, Atmospheric Architectures, 53. “This there” renders the Aristotelean tode ti, referring to the individual substance.


Soper, Nature, 15.


Ibid., 15–16.


Ibid., 41, 161.


Ibid., 160.

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