Valuing Nature: The Imperative of Being, 2002

The inquiry, “Valuing Nature,” was first prompted by critique of an attempt to assess the natural world’s economic value. Later the inquiry was broadened so that “Valuing Nature” could be viewed from a variety of perspectives. My contribution, conjecturing from an artist’s perspective, has been intense because I consider valuing nature to be the understanding and founding moral sentiment which can refine reason, enlighten judgement, and reconstruct art, culture and political economy. As a consequence, I am concerned that belief in supernatural values, though once a positive influence for society, has now become lethal to society resulting in increased ethnic/ social stress, nihilism, and finally real ecological degradation which threatens the survival of human being. Similarly, though less vehemently, I am opposed to idolatry of language—sometimes mockingly called “transcendental idealism in linguistic clothing.” I am even more opposed to outmoded transcendental idealisms that evoke supernatural entities as ultimate authority and I argue that these forms of idealism have become mystifying illusions that have destructive social consequences. Our culture has great need of new ideals and new art which contend with the pleasure and tragedy of understanding the fateful priority of nature—ideals which reflect the understanding that the human spirit including the desire to transcend nature, exists, develops and evolves within nature itself.

In relation to nature, history and the growth of knowledge have presented artists with different obligations. Leonardo Da Vinci was concerned with objective study of nature. For Matisse, nature was inspiration for subjective arabesque—although since then, on a social scale, there have been few moments of his cherished “lux, calme, et volupte.” Western culture has suffered two world wars, ecological disgrace, and “reason” has developed the ability to degrade the environment and destroy life. The intervening art, though manifestly hypersubjective (and often vain), has been a latent index of social stress. Now the threat to human existence is the basis for renewed sublimation of subjectivity and celebration of the value of objective observation. Now the obligation is to discipline sentiment and vanity by means of an objective relationship with natural process. On that basis, we can appropriately reconstruct objectivity by understanding that the consummation of inner experience is contingent upon measured relationship with the world of nature.

This is my premise: human society has reached a point where the obstacle hindering its existence, environmental degradation, is fact. Valuing protection of the environment is crucial for the preservation of being. If the environmental crisis is a fact or is soon to be a fact, then it is sensible to change our values and behavior accordingly—healthy environment ought to be a birthright of all people. Furthermore, the maintenance of a life-sustaining natural environment has become an objective foundation for the establishment of quality of life and moral value. We now live, therefore, under the obligation to value nature over all, or at least prior to, other values particularly for survival, but also to insure that trade-off of nature for other values i.e. resources for jobs, is not self-defeating. Moreover, valuing nature encourages reverence for life and recognition that nature is the ruling power over life; as such it reconstructs religion and binds (re-ligare—Latin meaning to bind back) all people by means of an organizing principle for sentiment, conduct and practical life.

The position I argue for holds that at the base of the environmental crisis and cultural decadence is arrogant misuse of human reason. While technology is generally beneficial, misuse of technology is a symptom of a deeper problem of faulty epistemology—of how we fail to recognize our causal dependency on nature. That failure is in large part due to a negative self-destructive dynamic inherited from hubris, rampant platonism and our presumptuous pre-scientific religious illusions. Positively, if we can come to a clear understanding of the priority of nature, that is, the causal dependency of human being on the process of nature, then we will use reason appropriately and thus experience greater freedom and a better world. I am going to call this position valuing nature. I argue that art which expresses this value helps individuals develop the appropriate emotional response to being in nature and contributes to the construction of a culture, which understands natural and social purpose—thus a society which will flourish and experience greater well-being.

Valuing nature is an aesthetically and scientifically informed awareness and moral sentiment enlightened by recognition that nature is prior to human reason and thus the foundation for judgement and freedom. Valuing nature recognizes that human survival, and quality of life are causally dependant on natural process and evolution. Valuing nature acknowledges that there is no supernatural cause or solution to the problems of human being. Valuing nature recognizes that human reason has limitation and cannot, in the strict sense of the word, comprehend nature. Valuing nature recognizes the responsibility of reason and art is to evolve and mirror the morphology and evolution of nature. Valuing nature is enthusiasm for life, celebrating earthly happiness, and is thus anti-nihilist and anti-postmodernist.


Valuing nature as a critique of supernatural truth claims obliges art to reconstruct a socially-binding metanarrative and construct a new humanity. Valuing nature establishes the importance of aspiring to accurate perception and representation of nature. One consequence is the naturalization and discipline of philosophy—shifting preoccupation from definition and language, to nature and the world. Valuing nature can become an organizing principle to influence passion, conduct and practical life; it can be a foil for hyperindividualism and its aspiration to subjective authenticity (unconcealdness). Valuing nature, as an overarching awareness and obligation, potentially can focus culture and ameliorate conflicts caused by ethnocentrism. Valuing nature can help establish a birthright to a fair share of the natural resources. Finally, valuing nature may result in more effective government as citizens realize it is in their mutual self-interest to mutually coerce behavior to protect their environment (Simon, Hardin, Hobbes).

My Work

I began working fifty years after Matisse wrote Notes of a Painter in 1908. As is the case with most artists, my first work was conceptual, conventional and not about seeing. The work was about formula and not about nature. The succeeding art, however, drawn from direct perception of anatomical specimens, particularly a dead monkey head, was alive and exciting. That experience led to my respect for fresh perception and consequent disrespect for conceptual thought, which occluded vision. I learned that creative work in science and art, in addition to aesthetic organization, is based on the sensation, metaphor, and elucidation of nature. At the same time, circa 1960, I was excited by Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and thus The Bacchae of Euripides. Soon after, I illustrated The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf with portraits of philosophers of the French Revolution. I was also interested in critical theory, the post-war critique of idealism, the authoritarian personality, instrumental reason, and technology—much of which, according to the Frankfurt school, stemmed from the underestimation of affect and nature, leading to arrogant appropriation of “instrumental” reason. So I am predisposed to value nature. I am in solidarity with the aspiration to naturalize and discipline reason—to save reason from hubris. The caveat is that we must increase reliance on the instrument of reason to help measure and see nature accurately, for it is the highest romantic folly to identify ego with the omnipotence of nature and deny the discipline of perception that reason provides.

Artists Use Reason to See Nature

Artists can become adept at “objectifying” or structuring the experience of nature. We learn to use cognitive skills to measure and refine perception. We solicit and negotiate antimonies such as figure/ground, perception/conception, and nuances of color such as warm/cool, neutrality/intensity etc. Artists who work perceptually work in a medium that is a more immediate index of sensual/empirical experience of nature than verbal language. On another level, artists can develop a critical attitude towards conceptual formula. We learn how images can sublate preconceptions and prejudices and how to intelligently construct and present freshly critical images— generally how to value mindful awareness.

The fundamental discipline is to see and represent nature as clearly as possible—to be enthralled with selfless perception of nature. Iris Murdoch, the late English philosopher, celebrates accurate representation in The Sovereignty of the Good:

…Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something that is easy to name but hard to achieve (p. 41).

…The representational arts, which more evidently hold the mirror up to nature, seem to be concerned with morality in a way which is not simply an effect of our intuition of the artist’s discipline. These arts, especially literature and painting, show us the peculiar sense in which the concept of virtue is tied on to the human condition. They show us the absolute pointlessness of virtue while exhibiting its supreme importance; the enjoyment of art is atraining in the love of virtue… Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form. This form often seems to us mysterious because it resists the easy patterns of the fantasy, whereas there is nothing mysterious about the forms of bad art since they are the recognizable and familiar rat-runs of selfish day-dream. Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision (p. 86).

I admire Murdoch’s case for aspiring to objectivity, or unselfing, as she might put it. The point is to lose self-image consciousness and be in love with the world. Style is the byproduct of the struggle to be clear and objective. I might agree with Murdoch about her notion of the aimlessness of the universe, but on earth, in our human environment, I can see great social benefit in recognizing natural purpose, and the concept “purposiveness of nature.”

Purposiveness of Nature

In the spirit of this critique it is important to state that valuing nature is not valuing the word “nature.” I am not primarily interested in the abstract concept nature, but the dynamic organic process represented by the word. Ironically, for my purpose in this context, it is important to define nature. Nature from a common sense perspective, is the universe, including our world and thus including material objects and processes in space/ time which we can perceive with our senses. We also have access to a more sophisticated concept of nature that includes scientific and philosophical insights which promote a concept of nature as a dynamic, self-organized system whose laws can be discovered with the instrument of reason. Great difficulty can arise in the analysis of how human reason and natural purpose are connected. There is a presumptuous tendency to arrogate to human reason an inflated claim that it comprehends natural law or is supernatural transcendence i.e. Reason. It is, however, particularly important not to conflate natural law, and human reason (or make human reason God)—particularly as human usage of reason is so often flawed. Therefore, Kant’s concept, “purposiveness of nature,” is more accurate when talking about natural process and natural law. In the Critique of Judgement, prior to his discussion of beauty and the sublime, Kant takes great pains to analyse and define purpose and the purpose of nature as the foundation for judgement. Gratefully, from my perspective, Kant discovered a means of elucidating natural law and function without acknowledging a designer or architect of nature. Kant’s concept of the purposiveness of nature is a means to construe nature to human understanding without acceding to a supernatural deity. It is a handsome concept, attractive in its recognition of the logic and process of nature, which in turn is the foundation for judgement and freedom.

Nature and Philosophy—The Return of Representation

It was, until recently, fashionable in professional philosophy to reject naturalistic ethics, focus on language, and accede to a strict dichotomy between fact and value, or nature and morality. Many philosophers are still interested in linguistic therapy, which for the construction of social purpose I find to be myopic or simply inappropriate. Thus I must reject the “naturalistic fallacy” (G.E. Moore) as being semantic pedantry (perhaps the abstractionist fallacy or pernicious mentalism); rather I am in solidarity with naturalistic ethics, i.e. Aristotle. While I recognize that we cannot know nature in itself, my intuition is that direct perception of nature and conjecture about nature are organic to the creation of meaningful sentiment and meaningful art. The purpose of art must again be to mirror (that is see and accurately represent) nature and also to participate constructively in the conversation about value. This position, of course, contradicts the views of modish philosophers such as Rorty. Consider the argument he makes via Sellars and Quine: “The crucial premise of this argument is that we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation.” I argue that belief in belief soon becomes inbred and reactionary— he growth of knowledge needs fresh conjecture, metaphor, and paradigms constructed by means of fresh attempt to accurately perceive and represent nature.

Strawson’s Challenge and Definition of Hard Naturalism

For the purpose of valuing, defining and representing nature, consider Strawson’s conjecture: “Let us consider the idea that whatever exists at all exists in nature, in the world of objects, occurrences, processes in space time; so that to talk of abstract objects, intentions, universals, meanings, etc. must either be to talk in an oblique way about things and happenings in nature and nothing over and above nature, or be simply myth-making, indulging in fiction.(p. 79)” Though only a conjecture, it is a nice balancing corrective to those happy Platonists who over-estimate the value of abstract universals—and language.

Poussin’s Challenge

In the Fogg Art Museum, there is a painting, The Birth of Dionysos and the Death of Narcissus. I see it is a philosophical text wherein Poussin is instructing us on the necessity and benefit of recognizing the priority of nature. The birth of a healthy natural affect, an enlightened second nature, depends on the appropriate development of passion beyond narcissistic self-interest—i.e. awareness of the pleasure and tragedy of understanding natural fate. Natural passion and passion for nature enlightened by reason, constitute Dionysian religious wisdom extending from Greek culture to Titian to Poussin to Nietzsche etc. This insight can reemerge as deeply significant for our culture.

Nature is Sovereign—The Mission of Art

In the year 2000, artists still have the obligation to make beautiful and provocative form which embodies significant content. Now, with appropriate humility, it continues to be important for artists to help reconcile antimonies such as: subject and object, reason and passion, fact and value, value and culture—and ethical concerns such as degradation of the environment and poverty. To become a reasonably authentic sovereign individual requires a powerfully affirmative integrity; however, the primary responsibility of all citizens is common welfare, which teaches, through recognition of resource limitation for example, that nature is sovereign. In our time, protection of the environment and the awareness of the potential environmental crisis are intimately related to common concerns of survival, freedom, and political economy. Those concerns and the social contract force us to use judgement to measure and decipher “the objective purposiveness of nature.” The mission of art no longer can be childlike self-expression or appeasement of clients, but education and forceful social criticism—not the decoration of denial, but creation of speculative images of the good. Artists need to recognize the “extraordinary privilege responsibility confers” (Nietzsche) and stop exalting vain “child-like” behavior—stop whining about authenticity and become cultural doctors. With great enthusiasm artists need to “…contribute to the instruction of mankind (Hume).”;

Art, Nature and Religion

In the distant past, artists did not “value nature” per se; art helped mediate cultural/religious experience. In the recent past, art has been more of a means to express personal experience—or a gesture critical of authority. For our time the challenge for art is to lead society to recognize the fundamental value of nature—that nature, as the source of being is ineluctable, inescapable reality. It has become clear, by means of human reason, that there is no supernatural solution to the problems of being—there is no magical answer to the management of material conditions that aggravate the suffering of being. Though religious speculation is socially beneficial and comforting, society can no longer tolerate blind faith or palliative illusions which seem harmless, but which may collude in the degradation of being in the environment. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of art to see and elucidate nature, and critique religion for the purpose of social well being. A serious critique of the arrogance of religion in relation to nature was made by Lynn White in “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis:”

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen…Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends…Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny.

I agree with Lynn White that the solution must be religious in the broadest sense. I am not calling for the eradication of religion, but of values inherent in the institutionalized, monotheistic, revealed religions.

“The Miracles of Nature”

Sustaining the miracle of human existence is a fundamental value worthy of religious celebration. To instruct judgement and inspire religious feeling for nature, the responsibility of art and reason is to show not only the nature of logic and the logic of nature, but art also can show i.e. represent what Wittgenstein called, “The miracles of nature.”

The miracles of nature.

One might say: art shows us the miracles of nature. It is based on the concept of the miracles of nature. (The blossom, just opening out. What is marvelous about it?) We say: “Just look at it opening out!”…(p.56e)

The mathematician too can wonder at the miracles (the crystal) of nature of course; but can he do so once a problem has arisen about what it actually is he is contemplating? Is it really possible as long as the object that he finds astonishing and gazes at with awe is shrouded in a philosophical fog?

I could imagine somebody might admire not only real trees, but also the shadows or reflections that they cast, taking them too for trees. But once he has told himself that these are not really trees after all and has come to be puzzled at what they are, or at how they are related to trees, his admiration will have suffered a rupture that will need healing. (p.57e) (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1947)

This quotation may express a religious feeling for nature. It is a fine representation of the interpenetration of mind and nature—which is the foundation for art and language, culture and value. It “shows” the dilemma of representation, and the difficulty of seeing how language (concept) hooks on to the world. It demonstrates the problematic relationship between concept and art, concept and nature; that is, that art, language, and conceptual paradigms are beneficially reinterpreted or abandoned if they are fallacious. When critiquing the value of conceptual thought and celebrating the value of natural purpose, however, it should be clearly recognized that appropriate use of reason is positive in relation to nature—although clearly, to value nature is to devalue reason as God. The point is that natural process is the ground of being and is thus the fundamental criterion for reason’s just employment. Good art “shows” the value of nature, enhances religious feeling and refines the usage of reason.

“The Miracles of Nature” in America

Over a century before Wittgenstein, in 1837, Emerson wrote the following: “The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature.” On Aug. 23, 1851, in his journals, Thoreau evoked an associated value in a perception of the natural world:

I saw a snake by the roadside and touched him with my foot to see if he were alive. He had a toad in his jaws, which he was preparing to swallow with his jaws distended to three times his width, but he relinquished his prey in haste and fled; and I thought, as the toad jumped leisurely away with his slime-covered hind-quarters glistening in the sun, as if I, his deliverer, wished to interrupt his meditations—without a shriek or fainting—I thought what a healthy indifference he manifested. Is not this the broad earth still? he said.

For me this perception expresses a fresh feeling for the miracle of nature and acceptance of natural fate, which signifies a stoic or tragic, religious sentiment without orthodox, moral value judgement.

The Gambit of Hubris, Divine Reason and Magic

The premise of valuing nature proposes that grounding value in nature lessens the mystification, and hubris, associated with the truth claim of “divine reason”—the abuse of power resulting from individual or tribal gambit to achieve status as superior or omnipotent “chosen” people. It proposes and reiterates the necessity of seeing that reason accede to the reality of human dependence on nature. It proposes that valuing nature (and passion) reinvigorates art—that hubris, solipsism, and personal fantasy are the enemy of art and social progress. While structures and consolatory dreams constructed by means of hubristic reason or magical thought may excite and provide provisional security, they also provide comfortable disincentive to see the complexity, morphology, and threat to real human existence that characterizes being in nature. Certainly, if there is crisis in our relation to the natural environment, we must give up magical thought no matter how consolatory, in order to see nature as clearly as possible and develop enlightened social policy. [I acknowledge that there are religions that worship nature and attribute to it magical powers, and that this results in respect and reverence not hubris and abuse. My concern is with magic as primitive prescientific logic based on fallacious associations and superstition.]

Nature and Reason

Nature, like Thoreau’s snake, is neither good nor bad. Nature is amoral. We construct what is good by using passion and reason. We employ reason to perceive discord, minimize suffering, create harmony, and maintain a hospitable, aesthetic environment. Notwithstanding the progress of science, we see that reason, used as an instrument of hubris, technology and war can have deadly consequences. Reason is like a magnificent, beautiful snake whose mishandling can have lethal consequence. Perhaps that was foreseen by Epicurus in his critique of Plato and his solidarity with Aristotle when he, by means of reason, proposed the dethronement of reason and the establishment of nature as the fundamental value. [From Epicurus to Hume, there has been recognition of the value of human sentiment or natural virtues derived from: feelings, sensations, sympathies that provide love and a sense of inner justice etc.] Certainly Epicurus’s celebration of life and denial of immortality delighted Nietzsche.


We celebrate reason as our most useful instrument in providing freedom and profitably negotiating being in nature. However the usage of reason is compromised by its limitations. Compared to the infinite complexity of nature, reason is limited. Therefore it is crucial to realize that to achieve freedom, reason must be criticized and tested according to its benefit in accommodating nature. It is socially lethal to believe in reason when nature is not accommodating.

Enlightened Reason

Society needs every bit of enlightened reason it can get. Though reason is morally neutral, it is the mind’s finest analytical instrument. Reason has provided us with invaluable ability to transcend childish behavior and establish language, the rule of law, mathematics, social order, science etc; but reason without justice can be lethal. Pure reason may be an infallible instrument, but practical reason has been used as an instrument of denial—an instrument of theistic orthodoxy, a gambit of hubris and the instrument of reactionary idealism. Reason, unfortunately, has also been used as an instrument of evil oppression—Nazism, Fascism and the destructive alliance of technology and religion (the later in that they mutually reinforce claim to superiority to nature). The words of a contemporary French philosopher express those concerns and contradictions, “One is still defending reason when one fights those who mask their abuses of power under the appearances of reason or who use the weapons of reason to consolidate or justify an arbitrary empire.” (Pierre Bourdieu, p. 20). It is the responsibility of philosophy and art to temper reason in the flames of justice and virtue—and ecology. So it is imperative to describe ways in which the fallacious over-inflation of reason and seemingly reasonable conceptual thought, such as “idealism,” or even the seemingly neutral concept of “form,” have tragic consequences from a broad ecological perspective.

The Platonic Fallacy

Consider the celebrated Platonic concept “ideal form” from a post-Galilean ecological perspective. Form as a way of simplifying and organizing experience has been a particularly beneficial concept. It is not, however, beneficial to arrogate to form more significance than it deserves. The very act of conceiving of an ideal form, a cup for example, abstracts that form from the environment. In nature, all objects (forms) are embedded in the environment. The question, “Where is the ideal environment for the ideal form?” betrays the fallacy of platonic idealism. This “Platonic Fallacy” (the overvaluation of form) has the consequence of devaluing the environment. In fact, since the Renaissance, artists have recognized that it is the relationship of form to environment, or figure to ground, which accurately represents the dynamic process of nature. To push the critique further, from a scientific perspective, there is no “form” in nature—only energy in transfiguration. For our time the challenge is to reconcile the difference between the “object” of Newtonian physics and the perceptual “uncertainty,” (the dance), of quantum mechanics (energy). It is the necessity of art to construct form while also elucidating its limitations. (Students of perceptual drawing commit an associated fallacy: the semeiotic fallacy—they interpose preconceived signs which disenfranchises them from their own perception— perception of what is actually in front of them. They do not see, or will themselves not to see, what is really there.)

Limiting reason thus, and valuing nature, implies the devaluation of idealism (supernatural values). By valuing nature we disenthrall ourselves from that deification of human “reason” which is ironically irrational, naive, and arrogant when in the service of the denial of natural fate. To value nature is to devalue super-earthly hopes and pseudo-rational pretensions to transcendence, which have become lethal to social well-being.

Value Per Se

Analysis of the value of nature depends on society’s judgement of nature’s potential benefit to the amelioration of misery and also the enhancement of justice. Also, our inquiry requires us to more broadly evaluate the relative merit of valuing nature (potentially to the detriment of other values). It encourages consideration of the question, “what is the value of valuing nature?” The primary intent of an inquiry concerning value qua value is to discern benefit for human being. A value is positive if it enhances pleasure and/or minimizes suffering for humanity. There are four ways to define value in relation to nature:

I. Ontologicalvalueisrecognitionofthebiologicalbasisoflife,whichinsures survival (coercing liberty). For humans nature is inherently good.

II. Moral/utilitarian value is recognition of our moral responsibility to limit suffering which results from environmental degradation, (which our ecologists and economists have well described).

III. Moral/aesthetic value is recognition of the pleasure of being in nature and joy in the establishment of harmony in nature. George Santayana in The Sense of Beauty used the Greek term Kalokagathia, defined as the aesthetic demand for the morally good, which he considered “…perhaps the finest flower of human nature.” Values can be objectified by consensus but values are based on subjective feelings, i.e. a sense of beauty. From this perspective, to paraphrase Spinoza, we value something not because it is good, but it is good because we value it.

IV. Moral/social value is recognition of nature as the ground of mutual human sentiment. On June 30, 1852, in his journals, Thoreau beautifully expresses this value:

Nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all; that is, her scenes must be associated with humane affections, such as are associated with one’s place, for instance. She is most significant to a lover. A lover of Nature is preeminently a lover of man. If I have no friend, what is Nature to me? She ceases to be morally significant.

The Ontological Imperative

The ontological value of nature is so obvious, so absolute, and so imperative as to deserve the fundamental place in our hierarchy of values. Consequently, I define the imperative and universal law of human being, as the ontological imperative, which is to act according to the recognition that human dependency on nature requires that action’s first responsibility is to protect being in the environment. This requires reason to stand under nature—to understand nature and function as a means to negotiate that dependency for the purpose of survival and social well-being. Thus, contemplating and accepting the ontological imperative forces us to a reciprocal critique of the value of reason. We elevate or degrade the value of nature by means of rational analysis. While it is passion (for nature) that is the appropriate foundation for reason, it is reason that enlightens our passion. Reason recognizes the value of economic and ecological goods and services. It is reason that forces us to see our fate, negotiate our relationship to nature and when appropriate, accept mutual coercion of liberty.

The ontological imperative underlines the recognition that reason is not an end in itself—it is not “god” superior to nature; rather it is the means to elucidate the purpose of nature and maintain the unique material manifestation of energy in space and time which is hospitable to human being. Being does not serve reason: rather, reason serves being. Simply stated: reason is the means of being in harmony with nature and to teach us the tragic reality of fate and the tragic consequences of not mutually coercing our behavior in recognition of necessity.

Incipit Tragoedia

Seeing nature accurately and valuing nature recognizes that being in nature has a tragic dimension. Nature throughout the cosmos is generally incompatible with life. On earth where human being has established a foothold, nature threatens well-being and is the source of suffering through: climatic hostility, disease, predation, pollution, pain and the inevitability of death. Throughout space and time, nature is perceived to be “magnificently indifferent,” and without remorse. Therefore, one might reasonably feel that nature is hostile. It might seem reasonable to perceive nature as evil and the enemy of life (to say nothing of happiness). That anthropomorphism, however, is a type of pathetic fallacy. On balance, it is self-evident that nature has unlimited positive value because the survival of humanity depends on the maintenance of a hospitable natural environment. We are physically dependent on nature and with the exception of magical thought or supernatural illusion, the reality of that dependency overrides, and sublates subsequent values—assuming that life itself is the fundamental value. In our time, not valuing and accepting the priority of nature seems as self destructive as a parasite’s attempt to kill its own host.

A Birthright

In relation to the economic sector of our inquiry, valuing nature has ironic and contradictory consequences for policy. On the one hand, it seems to encourage a Darwinist free market; on the other hand, valuing nature may help establish the right of all individuals to enhanced justice by means of recognizing a birthright to a reasonable share of the limited natural resources, as well as responsibilities to participate in their management. In this light everyone’s birthright requires a healthy environment and enlightened control of capital. Though protecting survival in the material environment is the first priority, as part of nature, the amelioration of human suffering is a subsequent responsibility. Therefore it is a responsibility of reason to minimize misery and not collaborate with ideas such as economical/ mathematical models, which do not sufficiently recognize social consequences i.e. entrenched poverty and ghetto environment.

Ecological Rationality

Now, with ecological insight, it is time to give up the illusion of supernatural intervention—and to recognize that the necessary condition for the construction of social well-being is the achievement of harmony with nature. In other words, our goal of social and economic democracy must grow from ecological rationality—the acceptance that human being is incontrovertibly dependent on nature. Utopian, aesthetic and moral speculation must be grounded in material recognition of that priority of nature for human thought. To define this celebration of the priority of nature more precisely, I like to use a definition of “materialism” by the Italian philosopher Sebastiano Timpanaro in 1973:

By materialism we understand above all acknowledgement of the priority of nature over ‘mind’, or if you like, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level; both in the sense of chronological priority (the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man), and in the sense of the conditioning which nature still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for the foreseeable future (p. 34).

We see that how we define nature has implications for the concept of human being and human values. If we perceive nature as substance and form which we can master and engineer to our benefit, we may have an inappropriate feeling of superiority (“the gaze of development”). If we view nature as an index of god’s mind and we view ourselves as designed in god’s image, we augment our hubris. However, as an alternative perspective, if we see nature as the fundamental process organic to being, then we appropriately view ourselves in a dependent relationship that must be sensitively monitored and we see human being as part of nature rather than superior to nature. So either we, with God’s support, are superior to nature and can use nature as a means or we are both part of and inferior to nature and must manage our dependency with the purpose of living in harmony with nature.

Deus Sive Natura

When we look at nature eye to eye, scientifically and courageously, we see consequences appropriately tragic for ego and the concept of god. The consequence of valuing nature is to give up the concept of “divine reason,” and thus to devalue God or at least recontextualize the concept of god. Spinoza’s loaded question, “Deus sive Natura,” (God or Nature) is answered by valuing nature—by choosing nature, or Nature as God, one does not value a god superior to nature. The concept of a supernatural god, super-earthly hopes, and all magical thought may have had beneficial moral value and has been of considerable value as a comforting illusion. But as Arthur Koestler wrote in 1967, “God seems to have left the receiver off the hook and time is running out.”


The history of theology has been constructive and concepts such as “god as the mind of nature” or “the intelligence of nature,” may be positive, but on balance the concept of God as omnipotence superior to nature has become socially lethal. It is socially lethal because of the unholy alliance between theology and technology—and some would add capitalism to the evil concoction. (The quintessential emblem of that “unholy” alliance is naming of the first Atom bomb “Trinity.”) Another lethal outcome of the god of omnipotence are ethnic claims of special relationship to God—and destructive aggressive behavior based on the illusion of access to omnipotence.

The Death of God

There is a long tradition of this critique of and the concept of God. Feuerbach proposed that we sublate theology by means of anthropology. Nietzsche, famously and/or infamously, proclaimed the death of God and as a corollary he proposed the transvaluation of all values—a systematic elevation of earthly values and earthly spirituality and devaluing superearthly hopes. Valuing the value of nature provides us with a criterion for the discipline of reason and religion; it provides a foundation for the negotiation of the transvaluation of all values.

This critique of religion and the supernatural is not arrogant posturing; rather, it is confrontation of the transitional stage prior to the triumphant return of affirmation and passion for the world—to re-legate society on a solid footing of natural virtue. The rejection of immortality and the supernatural presages achievement of life in the real world, and a resurgence of courage and freedom. It is in that tradition and in celebration of “transvaluation” that Richard Rorty in the recently published book, Achieving Our Country, expresses solidarity with the critique of Whitman and Dewey:

They wanted to put hope for a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul. ‘Democracy,’ Dewey said, ‘is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature.’ For both Whitman and Dewey, the terms ‘America’ and ‘democracy’ are shorthand for a new conception of what it is to be human—a conception which has no room for obedience to a nonhuman authority…(p.137).

Valuing Nature Completes the French Revolution

Prior to any sense of environmental crisis, Western culture demonstrated a grand tradition of valuing nature: agrarian earth religions, paganism, Aristotle, Epicurus, Lucretius, stoicism, Leonardo, Copernicus, Telesio, Bruno, Newton, Bacon, Darwin, etc. Individuals have always celebrated the value of nature in art, poetry and philosophy. The cultural celebration of the value of nature, and the deflation of supernatural values, escalated about the time of the philosophical episteme preceding the French revolution (i.e. Rousseau etc.). The more significant social and political recognition of the value of nature emerged during of the French Revolution, at which time the repudiation of “divine right” inaugurated recognition that just authority derives from reconciliation of social purpose and natural purpose. Since the French Revolution, there continues to be a struggle to establish a natural rather than “divine” moral authority. Western culture is recovering from barbaric world wars and continues to be characterized by authoritarian repression, religious wars, ethnic hatred, intense social struggle, unsettling paradigm shifts (i.e. relativity), and cultural war in general. If that were not enough stress, we have learned that human existence is threatened by ecological degradation and nuclear warfare. The year 1945 is a useful marker for the imperative to finish the revolutionary work of changing our values; Oppenheimer’s quote “I am become death” was prescient—we can no longer value or afford the illusion of “divine” or supernatural solution to the problems of being.

Inner Nature

In response to the crisis of value and authority, art defensively turned inward contemplating “inner nature.” Art and theory became less concerned with universal moral purpose and more concerned with individual liberty. Art appropriately became a critique subversive of the tradition and language which led culture to value fascism and oppressive authority. Progressive art valued the critique of language (dadaism), reason per se (formalism), or emotion per se (expressionism), with little concern for fundamental extension of morality. That retreat to solipsism had an attractive child-like integrity, but the art produced was often experienced by the wider community as irrelevant or irritating gestures of frustration.

Nature and the Sublime

Paralleling art, it can be argued that philosophy, in its excessive concern with language and grammar, withdrew from seeing and representing the world. Moreover, particularly in relation to valuing nature, modish claims by art critics supporting abstraction or deconstruction, of transcending nature and achieving the “sublime,” might benefit by evaluation in relation to Kant’s critique written over 200 years ago in The Critique of Judgement (1790):

But in what we are accustomed to call sublime there is nothing at all that leads to particular objective principles and forms of nature corresponding to them; so far from it that for the most part nature excites the Ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived. Hence, we see that the concept of the Sublime is not nearly so important or rich in consequences as the concept of the Beautiful; and that in general it displays nothing purposive in nature itself, but only in that possible use of our intuitions of it by which there is produced in us a feeling of a purposiveness quite independent of nature. We must seek a ground external to ourselves for the Beautiful of nature; but seek it for the Sublime merely in ourselves and in our attitude of thought which introduces a sublimity into the representation of nature. This is a very needful preliminary remark, which quite separates the Ideas of the sublime from that of a purposiveness of nature, and makes the theory of the sublime a mere appendix to the aesthetical judging of the purposiveness; because by means of it no particular form is represented in nature, but there is only developed a purposive use which the Imagination makes of its representation (p. 104).

Now, in the year 2002, there is support in criticism for the primacy of personal interpretation. When, however, there is no effort to be objective, the personal claim of sublimity is hollow, even mendacious.

Matisse and Nature

A lucid and elegant case for the importance of subjective interpretation in painting was made by Matisse in Notes of a Painter. To distinguish his work from the Impressionists and their “…deceptively fleeting impressions,” he indicated that he was after “…expression…a more lasting interpretation… I want to reach that state of condensation of sensation.” The following famous quotation was a breath of fresh air for twentieth century artists:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.

Subjective expression per se, has now become less interesting often devolving to solipsism and “art for art’s sake,” though the abstract elegance of Matisse’s paintings and his analysis of the grammar of visual expression continue to be influential for pictorial thought. Now from our critical perspective, however, contemporary focus ought to be less about decoration or appeasement and more about the world. To be fair, this is not a critique of Matisse; he understood cultural influence “…we belong to our time and we share in its opinions, preferences and delusions,” and he definitely recognized the priority of nature, as evident in the quotation, “…Those who work in an affected style, deliberately turning their back on nature, are in error…”

Ethos of Ecological Justice

Now, at the beginning of an era when most scientists acknowledge an environmental crisis, society needs artists to be in solidarity with the obligation to see and picture nature accurately, to imagine a better future and to construct images of social well-being or images which provoke more social well-being— images which show the miracles of nature and encourage contemplation of the good. Certainly artists will and should continue to celebrate authentic individualism, but preferably they can transform that intuition in the service of becoming architects participating in the creation of a new ethos of ecological and social justice. It is time for artists to accept the social obligation to construct a vision of the common good wherein human relations inspire individuals and culture to limit liberty, or even coerce liberty if necessary, in exchange for freedom and justice. Of course, art will not do any good for society if it does not celebrate life, have beautiful form, or ask meaningful questions.

The Value of Valuing Nature

The goal of moral purpose and aesthetic purpose is to minimize pain and suffering, and augment pleasure and happiness—to maximize justice. The primary reason for valuing nature is to protect being, but the ultimate value of valuing nature is that it binds human beings socially—it provides the foundation for a fresh cultural/religious content—an incontrovertible content that must be shared by all human beings.

A Better World Order

Art can help us see. If we can perceive the value of nature, the economic cost and lethal consequences of environmental degradation, we may actually have an incentive and opportunity to create a new culture sensitive to life and environmental priority. Unfortunately, there are still reactionary forces. We are fighting a cultural war wherein those forces, in denying the ecological imperative, employ deadly orthodox religious ideology to avoid reality, impose value, justify authority, and consolidate power. Those with other values, who can see the profoundly beneficial consequences of valuing nature, those who can imagine and will work with courage to construct the future, must present an alternate vision of the good grounded in the struggle to create a reasonable harmony on earth—an economics of happiness— reasonable happiness for all peoples of the earth.

Appendix: Logic of Valuing Nature

with Nicolas Cornell

Intended Goal/Conclusion: Nature is of fundamental and paramount importance.

Premises: P1 Survival is of paramount importance. P2 Ifwedestroytheenvironment(nature),wecannotachievesurvival.

Difficulty #1: The premises do not logically imply the conclusion. Solution: Add another premise (implicitly)

P3 If something is of the highest importance then the necessary conditions of it are also of the highest importance.

Difficulty #2: Survival is not of paramount importance in that bare existence is meaningless without quality. (i.e. Life without quality is not worth living)

Solution: Rephrase the first two premises specifying “quality of survival”

P1 Quality survival is of paramount importance. P2 If we destroy the environment (nature), we cannot achieve quality survival.

Solution: Support the second premise with a new premise as an aspect of the original.

P2a There is no supernatural escape should we destroy the environment(nature).

This premise may not seem to be a reasonable assumption but it can be reasonably supported with two lines of argument.

1. Nobody makes policy based on the idea that there is a supernatural escape (e.g. nobody jumps of a bridge assuming God will save them before they hit the water). Thus, though it may exist, it is sound policy to assume that no supernatural escape exists.

2. Religion must be divorced from materialistic questions. Regardless of our view of religion in the realm of morality, we cannot see it as important in the material realm (e.g. God may give us intangible moral solutions, but He or it doesn’t actually produce more material trees).

At this point the objector is left arguing that either 1. we will achieve a supernatural and non-material survival, or

2. we can count on religion to produce material benefits. Since both of these positions seem only vaguely tenable, the argument will be left at this point.

Difficulty#4: The second premise is false if technology and new human constructions will allow us to survive even in the face of a destruction of nature. In other words, the argument fails if nature proves not to be a necessary condition of human survival (e.g. protecting the ozone layer is not important if we can create a substitute or replenishing technique).

Solution: Support the second premise with a new premise as an aspect of the original.

P2b Technology and human constructs cannot assuredly provide an escape from our dependency on nature.

There are three independent reason that this premise ought to be accepted: 1. Technology and artificial constructions are themselves dependent on nature.

2. To reject this, is to create faith in reason or essentially deify reason. This then results in the pitfalls of a supernatural objection outlined above.

3. Even if it is possible that such an escape exists, it is not assured. Thus, we cannot gamble something of paramount importance (survival) on the assumption of its existence.

Final Argument:

P1 Quality survival is of paramount importance. P2 If we destroy the environment (nature), we cannot achieve quality survival. P2a There is no supernatural escape should we destroy nature.

P2b Technology and human constructs cannot assuredly provide an escape from our dependency on nature.

P3 If something is of the highest importance then the necessary conditions of it are also of the highest importance.

Thus, Nature is of fundamental and paramount importance.

Works Cited

Pierre Bourdieu. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: New Press, 1999.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Journals.

Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgement. Trans. J. H. Bernard. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1931.

Arthur Koestler. The Ghost in the Machine. Reading, UK: Arkana Books, 1991

Henri Matisse. “Notes of a Painter on his Drawing, 1939.” Matisse on Art, Jack D. Flam, New York, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.

Iris Murdoch. The Sovereignty of the Good. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970. Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 1998.

————, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.

P. F. Strawson. Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1962.

Sebastiano Timpanaro. On Materialism. London: Verso, 1980. Lynn White, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science. 155. 1967. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Two recent books that I have found provocative in relation to the project of refining naturalistic ethics, or moral anthropology are Simon Blackburn’s Ruling Passions and Robert B. Louden’s Kant’s Impure Ethics.