Philosophy and Nature

An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore

Philosophy was created to aide humanity in finding purpose and meaning in life. It was also used to understand our origins and ontology and in the process of doing this, redefined the human-nature relationship in many different ways, depending on the thought structure of the day. Abstract concepts such as scientific constructs, beliefs, values and ethics were considered to be of the mind and were seen to have no particular connection to the physical world. The cerebral tone of philosophy and its dialectical methods created an overly academic venue that was more accessible to those with considerable intellect and who had gained the power and authority to influence the minds of men and women in a significant way. Philosophical ideas continued to grow and change with society and some views remain unresolved and still in progress to this day. Philosophy had a great deal to say about the relationship between humans and their environment. I will illuminate some of the most noted viewpoints in chronological order.

Early Hunters and Gatherers

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers are said to have lived in harmony with nature. During this time period, food and other needed resources for survival were readily available and this style of living worked adequately. Humans saw themselves as part of the habitat in which they lived and had respect for the elements, plants and animals.

The advent of agriculture to enable settlement created a change in perspective. The ability to control the food supply resulted in the impression that the environment was created and designed for human benefit. Land that was deficit in certain desired resources could be manipulated to make it useful. This included necessities like irrigation, farming, and raising animals. So, agriculture created the first significant shift in perception regarding the relationship between humans and their habitat to one of separation and more independence from nature.

Mediterranean Ideology

Mediterranean people became aggressive and proficient at anthropomorphizing their local geography especially with respect to farming and grazing. They also became aware of their distinctiveness from and dependence on nature. This dichotomy resulted in their rationalizing their dominance and separateness from the environment through abstract and complicated concepts. Inability to control their habitat was attributed to conditions and events beyond their control. The overriding feeling was that the land was divine and intended for human habitation, manipulation and domination.  

Greek Philosophy and Judaism

The worldview just described in the Mediterranean influence became the basis for Greek philosophy and Judaism although their resultant premises differed. Greek rationalism stopped employing folklore and substituted theory and definitive language. Judaism turned to metaphysics and used metaphors, allegories and symbolism to define its new paradigm. Over time, Greek rationalism and Judaism combined their beliefs into what became Christianity. Platonism emerged from the Christian framework and its platform has had a decisive influence over the Western World until modern times and still does.

Greek Rationalism and Christianity

Greek rationalism and Christianity asserted the notion that nature had no intrinsic worth until it was humanized thus proclaiming human superiority over the biosphere. Anthropocentrism and the linear conception of time emerged as part of this framework as well. Thus, history was thought to be going in one direction and to some final goal or objective. This concept became known as the Judeo-Christian tradition and has been attributed, by many scholars, scientists and laymen alike, to be the philosophy that is at the source of our ecological crisis. Others feel religion was less instrumental in fostering the destruction of our habitat than claimed and that the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution empowered by science and technology, is the more likely the culprit. Despite these differences of opinion, religions did promote the special place humans held in the story of creation and this alone contributed to feelings of superiority and privilege.

Pre-Renaissance Philosophy

Pre-Renaissance philosophy was monistic. The Cosmos was viewed as a whole in which humans were participants. The Middle Age asserted that the world was a divine organism. Everything had a God given place on the “Chain of Being,” a hierarchy with God at the top and the elements of earth, air, water and fire following respectively. God was considered the source of life and all entities in the universe were believed to be interconnected and interdependent. Mother Earth was the metaphor for this philosophy that endured until the beginning of modernism.

Renaissance Philosophy

The Renaissance viewed nature as a book made up of a system of signs. These signs needed to be read carefully in order to understand the cosmos and the importance and destiny of humanity. The collective interest in understanding the world, led to the emergence of the Scientific Revolution. Discovering the secrets of the universe prompted the formulation of the heliocentric cosmos, Kepler’s laws of the orbits of the planets and eventually Newton’s laws of gravity. The 17th century scientists began to utilize the newly emerging paradigm, the scientific method, to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos in order to understand the “book of nature”, and ultimately, the mind of God. It was also thought that theological knowledge could be obtained from this new science as well.

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