The Quarrel of Naturalisms or the Question of Ecology

The Quarrel of Naturalisms or the Question of Ecology

Catherine Larrère (University of Paris-Sorbonne, France)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3636-0.ch004


The chapter examines the distinctions between nature and culture, or nature and artifice. These are not equivalent distinctions; they draw a triangle. Thus, the erasure of the distinction between the natural and the artificial establishes a continuous segment between these two poles, without leading to the absorption of one into the other (erasure by artificialization, or by naturalization: this duality of solutions shows the persistence of dualism, even as one envisages its disappearance). This passage from two to three obeys the principle of the three musketeers (which, are four). It paves the way for indefinite plurality. One can go from three to four, adding, to the triangle of nature/artifact/culture, the plurality of culture; we are faced with an indefinite plurality of humans and non-humans. This should allow the re-encompassing patterns of domination, and the development of patterns of cooperation, which are not based on a rigid separation between praxis and poiesis.
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In 1973, Georges Canguilhem gave a conference entitled The Question of Ecology (Canguilhem, 1974, pp 37-44).

To speak of a subject that, at that time, was beginning to attract attention but was still relatively little dealt with, he found his references in the reflections of the Club of Rome, whose famous Meadows report, The Limits of Growth (Meadows, 1972) had appeared the year before. He was also interested in the ecological movement being formed in France, around the weekly Le Sauvage and articles by André Gorz, among others. In 1972, an article by Edgar Morin on the question of ecology also appeared.

The starting point of their reflection was therefore the ambiguity of the term ecology, which contains two different means, a scientific discipline (the study of the relations of organisms and their environment) and an ideological current, which mobilizes politically around environmental issues (pollution, waste, depletion of resources, etc.). Canguilhem's propose was then to distinguish between “scientific proposals, on which we can rely” (determining the limits of our technical and economic actions in the natural environment: we could not pursue an unlimited growth on a limited Earth), and ideological theses for political purpose.

From this point of view, he turned his back to technophobic, which already heralded the impending catastrophe, and turn is back at the same time to technophiles - who denied the fatality of the deadline and relied on their technological optimism (a technical solution will always be found to technical problems). Canguilhem thus articulated two criticisms: the rejection of naturalism, on the one hand, the questioning of the dominant conception of the relationship between science and technology, on the other.

The rejection of naturalism concerning whilst to the ideological (myth of the natural) and to a scientific dimension (the temptation of a purely naturalistic explanation of human conduct). To those who believed in the possibility of a return to the state of nature, to

“…islands of anti-technological purity in a world abandoned to its misdirection” (Canguilhem, 1974, p. 191).

Canguilhem replied that it’s a long time that nature was no longer natural, because man, by working, transformed his environment (this was Marx's argument in German Ideology, echoed by the anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan, whom Canguilhem much appreciated and quoted).

To those who, in the manner of sociobiology, said that man should be considered an animal, and that human conduct falls under the same naturalistic explanation as all animal conduct, Canguilhem countered that between man and nature social relations were interposed and that the occultation of these

“…could be considered an error, and even an interested mystification, concealing under the guise of a biological breakdown the crisis of a system of economic relations of production.”(Canguilhem, 1974, p.187).

To technophiles, he objected to their inability to understand what was going on: why had the technique become disruptive? It was there that a “question of ecology” was developed for him, of which…

“…the authentic place of formulation is philosophical thought.” (Canguilhem, 1974, p.189).

Taking up an idea already developed more than twenty years ago in his article “Machine and Organism”, Canguilhem advocated that the technique should be seen as a “science effect” and that it should be first understood as “a fact of life” (Canguilhem, 1969, p.122). From the moment when the technique would no longer be seen as an applied theory, but as the way in which humans adapt to their environment, one might wonder why the technique had ceased to be a form of regulation, able to correct itself, to become the source of disturbances.

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