In defiance of the idea that Nature — the thing, or the idea (capitalized or not), or both — is either dead or unnecessary, I feel like posting some favorite passages from “Nature Alive,” the second of A. N. Whitehead’s two 1933 lectures on nature, published in Modes of Thought (1938/1968), which you can read the full text of online.

Actually, I tend to agree — with Tim Morton and the many others who’ve made this argument before (like Bill Cronon, Richard White, Noel Castree and Bruce Braun, Neil Smith, Donna Haraway, Kate Soper, Raymond Williams, et al.) — that the idea of Nature can get us into some grave conceptual cul-de-sacs. (I’ve argued that before myself.) I’m just interested in reframing the conversation by sliding the idea of nature out of the vice-grip of nature-culture dualism.

Whitehead’s definition of “Nature” in these two lectures is “the world as interpreted by reliance on clear and distinct sensory experiences, visual, auditory, and tactile,” and that sounds reasonable to me. No us and it, no nature versus culture, just the whole as experienced by its participants. (More on this idea of Nature below these excerpts.)

Thus in conceiving the function of life in an occasion of experience, we must discriminate the actualized data presented by the antecedent world, the non-actualized potentialities which lie ready to promote their fusion into a new unity of experience, and the immediacy of self-enjoyment which belongs to the creative fusion of those data with those potentialities. This is the doctrine of the creative advance whereby it belongs to the essence of the universe, that it passes into a future. It is nonsense to conceive of nature as a static fact, even for an instant devoid of duration. There is no nature apart from transition, and there is no transition apart from temporal duration. This is the reason why the notion of an instant of time, conceived as a primary simple fact, is nonsense.

But even yet we have not exhausted the notion of creation which is essential to the understanding of nature. We must add yet another character to our description of life. This missing characteristic is ‘aim’. By this term ‘aim’ is meant the exclusion of the boundless wealth of alternative potentiality, and the inclusion of that definite factor of novelty which constitutes the selected way of entertaining those data in that process of unification. The aim is at that complex of feeling which is the enjoyment of those data in that way. ‘That way of enjoyment’ is selected from the boundless wealth of alternatives. It has been aimed at for actualization in that process.

Thus the characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment, creative activity, aim. (pp. 207-8; all emphases here and below added)

.    .    .    .   .

The only intelligible doctrine of causation is founded on the doctrine of immanence. Each occasion presupposes the antecedent world as active in its own nature. [. . .]  [This] is the reason why —as we have already noted—in our direct apprehension of the world around us we find that curious habit of claiming a two-fold unity with the observed data. We are in the world and the world is in us. Our immediate occasion is in the society of occasions forming the soul [i.e., the sense of self], and our soul is in our present occasion. The body is ours, and we are an activity within our body. This fact of observation, vague but imperative, is the foundation of the connexity of the world, and of the transmission of its types of order. (226-7)

.    .    .    .   .

Descartes’ ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is wrongly translated, ‘I think, therefore I am’. It is never bare thought or bare existence that we are aware of. I find myself as essentially a unity of emotions, enjoyments, hopes, fears, regrets, valuations of alternatives, decisions—all of them subjective reactions to the environment as active in my nature. My unity—which is Descartes’ ‘I am’—is my process of shaping this welter of material into a consistent pattern of feelings. The individual enjoyment is what I am in my role of a natural activity, as I shape the activities of the environment into a new creation, which is myself at this moment; and yet, as being myself, it is a continuation of the antecedent world.

If we stress the role of the environment, this process is causation. If we stress the role of my immediate pattern of active enjoyment, this process is self-creation. If we stress the role of the conceptual anticipation of the future whose existence is a necessity in the nature of the present, this process is the teleological aim at some ideal in the future. This aim, however, is not really beyond the present process. For the aim at the future is an enjoyment in the present. It thus effectively conditions the immediate self-creation of the new creature. (227-8; paragraph break added)

.    .    .    .   .

Life is the enjoyment of emotion, derived from the past and aimed at the future. It is the enjoyment of emotion which was then, which is now, and which will be then. This vector character is of the essence of such entertainment.

The emotion transcends the present in two ways. It issues from, and it issues towards. It is received, it is enjoyed, and it is passed along, from moment to moment. Each occasion is an activity of concern, in the Quaker sense of that term. It is the conjunction of transcendence and immanence. The occasion is concerned, in the way of feeling and aim, with things that in their own essence lie beyond it; although these things in their present functions are factors in the concern of that occasion. Thus each occasion, although engaged in its own immediate self-realization, is concerned with the universe. (229-30)

.    .    .    .   .

The key notion from which [the construction of a systematic metaphysical cosmology] should start is that the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life.


The upshot?

There is no Nature (or actuality, or reality, or world, or universe) except what is happening, and what is happening is happening all at once.

The universe is a patterned complex of actual occasions selectively prehending the worlds that impinge upon them. Causation (determination by things that have already happened) and self-creation (determination according to a subjectively felt aim) are both part of every actual occasion; the difference is in the mixture.

The sciences look for determining causes; the humanists look for aims (feelings, desires, intents, and the like). It’s time to recognize both, and to stop dishing them out on separate plates, some for “us” and some for the others (humans, or minds, or souls, or whatever on one side of the curtain, the rest on the other). We’re all in this together.

Do we need to call this “nature” (capitalized or not)? Of course not. But outside of the tradition of nature-culture dualism, the term probably makes as much sense as any.

There are many related ways of defining nature. Robert Corrington, for instance, calls nature “the sheer availability of whatever is” (fn. 1). The nature of nature, then, would be the availability of this availability — its coming-into-availability, its suchness (which I take to be a verb, not a quality belonging to something).

Since nothing merely is — everything is always in the process of becoming both itself and extending beyond itself, all things being self-transcending — the nature of nature is open-ended. Nature could thus be called immanent self-transcendence: immanent in that it is generative of itself, conditioning its own realization, and self-transcendent in its creativity.

Rethought along these kinds of lines (and there are many variations thereof), the idea of Nature shifts from being a particular idea that works its way historically into discourses of what is right (or wrong), what is good (or bad), how we should act (and shouldn’t), and so on, to becoming part of a practice of ontology and epistemology. What is this world (or universe, or pluriverse) we are part of? How are we part of it, and distinct from it? This is something that every entity answers in its own way, to its own (more or less) satisfaction.

Nature is, in Peircian terms, both firstness — the primordial potentiality surging through things and enabling their actualization — and thirdness — the idea of the whole, the sense we make of that firstness actualizing and emerging into meaning (for us and for others). It’s the idea of creative process, intended to point to the fact of creative process.

Reconceived that way, I have no problems with the idea of Nature.



1. From Corrington, Nature’s Religion, 1997, p. 3. I’ve taken this from Leon Niemoczynski’s Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature. Thanks to Leon for sending me parts of that book, which I recommend as a valuable synthesis of Peirce, Corrington and other processualists, and current Continental philosophy (including Deleuze, speculative realism, etc.).

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