5 philosophers rethinking the natural world
On the 17th of November, we celebrate World Philosophy Day 2022. With COP27 also occurring this month, we have chosen to highlight some of the key players from across philosophical and anthropological disciplines who have been instrumental in shaping contemporary attitudes towards ecology and our relationship to the natural world.
Le contrat naturel (1990)
Michel Serres (1930-2019) was a French philosopher, theorist and writer whose work challenges the boundaries of science, literature, culture, language and epistemology. He was elected to the Académie française, in recognition of his position as one of France's most prominent intellectuals.
In The Natural Contract, Michel Serres gives an innovative reflection on the necessity of a pact between Earth and its inhabitants. Already in the 1990s, global environmental change forced us to reconsider our relationship to nature. Michel Serres then called for a natural contract to be negotiated between Earth and its inhabitants. This new contract would complement Rousseau's social contract: if Rousseau’s contract was made between Men, Michel Serres’ natural contract must be made between Man and the World. Serres believed in a "symbiotic contract" with the earth through which balance and reciprocity would be brought to our relations with the planet. Our survival therefore depends on the extent to which humans join together and act globally, on an earth now reconceptualised as an entity. For Serres, the 20th century will herald in the declaration of the rights of nature, which will no longer make nature an object of control but a subject of law. Thirty years ago, the ecological call of Michel Serres was decried; today, his pact remains more relevant than ever.
Par-delà nature et culture (2005)
Born in 1949, Philippe Descola is a French anthropologist initially specialized in the ethnology of Amazonia. He has published extensively on the comparative analysis of the relations between humans and non-humans. He holds the chair of Anthropology of Nature at the Collège de France.
In his seminal work, Beyond Nature and Culture, Philippe Descola argues that “Nature” as we see it is an entirely Western construct. Informed by his time living amongst the Achuar of Amazonian Ecuador in the 1970s, he posits that there are in fact four main ways humankind relates to the natural world:
Animism: same interiority /different physicality - all objects (human, non-human, etc.) contain the same essence and are living, but differ in their bodies and customs
Totemism: same interiority/ same physicality- all objects contain the same soul, and share the same lifeforce
Analogism: different interiority/ different physicality- humans and non-humans do not share a soul or consciousness, nor do they share physical attributes
Naturalism: different interiority/ same physicality- humans and non-humans do not have the same consciousness or cognition, but do share a similar makeup (genetic, atomic etc)
Western thought grounds itself around the theory of naturalism- in which humankind and the natural world are disconnected from one another- they do not share a consciousness or culture. Ecologists increasingly argue that this separation between nature and culture, or rather the perception of nature as a mere resource to be tapped into and exploited; is what has enabled industrialist and capitalist systems to progress as they have, directly furthering the climate crisis through exploitation of resources. By opening ourselves up to these different ways of perceiving our relationship to the non-human, perhaps we can re-evaluate our stance towards our environment, and the beings we share it with.
Face à Gaïa : huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique (2015)
Bruno Latour (1947-2022) was a French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist known for his innovative work on analysing the relations between science, technology and society. He is one of the most significant thinkers of the last decades.
In Facing Gaïa, Bruno Latour focuses on the climate crisis and the challenges it poses to philosophers, scientists and politicians. Many believe that in the face of mass ecological change, we have shifted towards a new era in our world’s history- that of the Anthropocene. With this shift comes the urgent need to rethink our conception of Nature- what was previously a backdrop to our world now moves into the foreground, and its unpredictability is reshaping the world. In this series of eight essays, Bruno Latour uses James Lovelock’s concept of Gaïa, an interplay between life, clouds, rocks and the atmosphere as a way of picking apart the very concept of Nature. By bringing forward the delicate interplay of species and phenomena that we so rely on for our existence, will we be able to decentre ourselves enough to combat climate catastrophe? Here Bruno Latour proposes a new model of existence which fosters collaboration across scientific, theological, activist, and artistic fields, proposing a new way of coexisting as we enter the Anthropocene.
Watch Bruno Latour at the Institut français
Habiter en oiseau (2019)
Born in 1959, Vinciane Despret is a Belgian philosopher of science, whose work proposes new approaches to human-animal relations. She is considered to be a foundational thinker in what has now become the field of animal studies.
In Living as a Bird, Vinciane Despret met ornithologists in order to understand how certain birds create their territory. During her investigation, she demonstrates that the notion of territorialization is much more complex than it seems, and she sheds fresh light on the ways that birds construct their worlds. Mixing philosophy, science and poetry, Vinciane Despret invites us to diversify our perspectives. By bringing careful attention to the ways that birds construct their worlds, she encourages us to become more aware of the multiple modes of existence that characterize the planet we share with other species.
Watch Vinciane Despret at the Institut français
Manières d’être vivant (2020)
Born in 1983, Baptiste Morizot is a French philosopher, whose work focuses mainly on the relationship between humans and the living world. His research is based on field practices, in particular the tracking of wildlife.
In Ways of Being Alive, Baptiste Morizot argues that the ecological crisis is not only a crisis for the many species that face extinction, but also a crisis of sensibility – that is, a crisis in our relationships with other living beings. Dealing with this topic of connectedness between homo sapiens and other forms of life such as fauna and flora, mud, plants and organic matter, Baptiste Morizot manages to give us hope for the future of biodiversity whilst also making key fragments of scientific theory accessible to a wider audience. Based on his experience of tracking wolves in France, he adopts a poetic voice while highlighting, through personal anecdotes, the urgency with which we need to rethink our position towards the natural world.