The Idea of Nature

The “idea of nature” represents a human interpretation of what reality beyond our society represents, and as our understanding of its mechanics develops, so does our belief in what the “idea” is.

Our interpretation of nature has evolved over the centuries as we’ve gained insight into the mechanics of the world beyond our walls. I believe that initially our view of nature was not of one divorced from our view of society (what little there was). When we look at modern day aboriginal peoples of deep jungles or distant deserts, we see social groups that have no choice but to contend with the direct influence of the environment. With little power to prevent what forces nature can bring to bear upon them, their societies have no choice but to mould themselves into the hollow of its design. Oftentimes their view of nature is that of a form of animism, an idea that the objects and forces contended with every day are driven by meaning and desires, and could be appeased (as they cannot be escaped). As time went on though and our understanding increased, we developed a mechanical view of nature, a view where we discovered the means to predict numerous events and to some degree alter or prevent them. This understanding dashed away many of the older feelings of helplessness against nature’s moods. This ability to stay the hand of the omnipresent nature allowed us to divorce ourselves more and more until it reached a point where the idea of nature was no longer the idea of daily life, but instead the idea of the other, the foreign, the thing to be controlled.

Raymond Williams expresses that nature is thought of as: a default state of being, an anthropomorphic arbiter, a mechanical force, and as the antithesis of human endeavors.

When a snake bites, when a wolf howls or when a bird sings, we look at their behavior and exclaim “that is in their nature, that is what they do”. This meaning of nature is perhaps the oldest and is easily recognized. Williams presents this idea initially in his work, and it is an apt position to do so as it is a view which is fundamental and a view which one can build other views of nature upon. People tend to anthropomorphize many things. This may be a way in which we help ourselves understand the world around us, and to give a sense of meaning to it. William’s expresses this idea in detail, and its intriguing interactions with religious ideals. If nature can be viewed as a transcendent mother of life, what does that mean in relation to the supernatural belief in an ultimate creator who happens to be anthropomorphized as a male? I believe that this cognitive dissonance is present even today. Simultaneously, the mechanical and non-personified view of nature developed. No longer was there a static view of the natural world. The living world was no longer a thing to be simply categorized, but a thing that changes through time. This latter view helped lay the foundation in my own past opinion of what is also often the interpretation of nature today: the idea that nature is that which defines the edges of what it means to be human, or rather it is the absence of being a human endeavor, it is a nebulous thing that is used to draw a boundary around our civilization.

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