There is a growing concern in the world today, especially in contemporary philosophy, regarding nature. However, despite the strong concern, few texts adequately address the topic. In his work The Return of Nature, John Sallis attempts to show just how imperative it is that we reflect on nature and come to a new understanding of the relationship between humans, the current state of our world, and nature. This book serves as a solid call to arms, forcing us to reevaluate the meaning of nature and compelling us to take up the challenge of re-envisioning a future that is both sustainable and more fulfilling of our being.
The work emerges at the forefront of an ever growing concern with nature. With increased awareness of climate change and other environmental issues we face today, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have sought to address ways we can combat the evolving crises. In philosophy, nature has long been subject to investigation. Up until recently, the focus on nature was aimed at understanding its relationship to being or law, and related issues. Today, much of the focus has been on reconsidering various perspectives of nature in an attempt to account for the current movement to “return to nature,” with advocates for natural medicine, ecological living and energy.
This is indeed where Sallis fits; the goal of his text is to raise awareness to the necessity of accounting for nature in such a way that a paradigm shift occurs from man vs. nature, to man with nature. As with any text in this field it must not only provide a coherent and valid argument, but it must also draw from the tradition out of which it arises. Sallis utilizes German Idealism and American Transcendentalism to establish differing conceptions of nature as well as to interpret what a return to nature might mean for us today. Specifically, he focuses on the works of Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling in order to give an account of nature.
I believe that Sallis’ book can be broken down into three major sections based on the goal of each chapter. These are as follows: understanding nature, evaluating nature, and connecting nature to man. The first of these is the objective in the first three chapters, the second the middle three chapters, and the last the final two chapters. I will consider each of these sections as I see them in greater detail.
First, Sallis must provide a detailed background for viewing nature in the many ways that it has been understood. Accounting for the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche, he has done precisely this. In the first section, Sallis discusses the various ways in which nature can be said to “return.” He points out changing seasons, abandoned cities or buildings, and other instances in which nature may return – the meaning of return changing in different senses. In addition, “There are occasions when nature lets its beauty appear, when it shines forth in a scene so wondrous that it draws us into a contemplative repose in which we linger before the scene” Sallis writes (7).
Having set forth an explanation of the ways in which nature can be said to return, that is, the various meanings of “return” such that nature may do so, Sallis attempts to outline, in the second chapter, the origins of thought regarding nature, or what the Greeks termed φύσις, which reveals the etymological origins of the word to mean “birth” (28). Sallis then seeks to explore the foundations of nature in theoretical thought. He suggests that nature is “the place from within which natural things are born and determined as such” (29). Tracing nature in thought through German Idealism, and specifically through the philosophy of Schelling, Sallis concludes that nature tends to serve as grounding, a replacement for God. With this, “God can no longer be regarded as the causa sui but rather as progeny of the ground, as given birth by nature” (42).
Next, Sallis insists upon stablishing a distinction between the phrasing a “return of nature” and a “return to nature,” the former having been dealt with in the first chapter. The return to nature represents an often philosophical assertion, that we must derail the current trend of societal development and instead return to a state in which we give more regards to nature. As Sallis writes, it is an imperative which “presupposes that its addressees either have themselves retreated from nature or somehow been withdrawn from it, so that in either case they have been separated or at least distanced from nature” (44). Sallis considers the focus on a ‘return to nature’ through the theories of natural man in Rousseau, aesthetic judgment in Kant, and nature in Emerson. Following this, he briefly continues on into the German idealist tradition, as well as its successors in Nietzsche and Heidegger.
In accounting for Rousseau’s position on natural man as a starting point for a ‘return to nature’, Sallis notes that it “opens the way to a condition that, though not that of a savage, in a way accordant with modern life, approximate the state of nature” (46). It is thus theoretical and descriptive in content as it describes the state of nature, with the goal of leading to a method of critiquing or analyzing the modern political state. In the case of Rousseau then, the notion of a ‘return to nature’ is not asked on a sharp contradistinction between the separation of nature and this return. However, the opposite is true in Kant.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “begins by acknowledging the dependence of knowledge on experience, the primary movement enacted in the critical project consist in a regress from experience – primarily the experience of nature – to the a priori conditions of such experience, conditions that lie not in nature but in the subject,” Sallis notes (49). The separation of man from nature is evident in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but is perhaps more profound in his practical, moral theory. According to Kant, morality consists in acting in accordance with the categorical imperative and goes against nature. Sallis writes “morality itself lies in self-determination that, utterly detached from natural inclination, is carried out in accordance with the moral law” (49).
Stemming out of this separation, this fierce distinction between man and nature, Emerson’s essay Nature, argues in favor of a ‘return to nature’ considering that man has so far removed himself from nature due to his entrapment in urban atmospheres. Emerson, Sallis suggests, saw “the human spirit is expanded by coming into proximity to nature, by returning from the detachment from nature inculcated and enforced by city life” (50). Thus nature serves as the means through which spirit manifests itself and presents itself contrary to its becoming subservient to materialism and the goals associated with materialism.
While I will not comment further on the general outline of the views of a return to nature as it develops in the German idealist tradition, it is clear the direction which it is headed. As Sallis writes, “From nature one is displayed to oneself in some specific manner” and that “The return to nature also awakens a sense of the elemental in nature and of our capacity to master and control it,” we can already note the progression this takes (51). For example, Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘Will to Power’ is easily traced and tied into this development of a ‘return to nature.’
In the first section of the text, Sallis has set-up the background for the ability to analyze the concept of ‘nature’ as such, a task which I have described as understanding nature. He has provided a detailed history of the development of ‘nature’ as a concept, including its ancient Greek origins as well as its changing tone in German Idealism. Additionally, he examined the conceptions of “return of nature” and a “return to nature” differentiating the two and clarifying the concern over nature in contemporary continental philosophy. In doing so, Sallis has given the reader the ability to understand nature such that they may critique and analyze nature along with the next aim of the text: evaluating nature.
The goal of evaluating nature is one of analysis and critique, through examining in detail the theories in which a certain conception of nature is presupposed. This section is condensed into a single chapter, chapter four, “Return to Nature from a Beyond Nature,” though it penetrates into the remainder of the work. In this chapter, Sallis argues that nature is, in one sense, reduced to mere sensation, i.e., colors and shapes. In this case, nature is no longer ‘nature’, i.e., landscapes and environs. In order that the former can be determined to be “reconstituted” as the latter, “determinacy must supervene upon it from elsewhere, from somewhere beyond nature,” and so thus, “posits a nature beyond nature” (61). Sallis traces this ‘beyond nature’ through Nietzsche’s thought and notes that the metaphysical ground of the beyond nature is shifted to a subjective ground. “Nature is thus recalled to nature,” or, in other words, nature is not constituted by a “nature beyond nature” anymore, but instead contains its own self-determinacy, nature as such (63).
Sallis then shifts in chapter five, “The Elemental Turn,” to applying philosophy to practical political and ecological concerns. This final section of the book, which I have termed, connecting man to nature, seeks, by making philosophy contemporary in its goals, to illustrate ways the philosophical conception of “return to nature” may be applied to a revised concern for nature and the environment. Thus, this section serves ultimately as a “call to arms,” a militancy, with the objective of eliminating a particular mode of living in the world that is not only contrary to, but ultimately destructive of our nature. It is the task of philosophy to “dismantle the frame of this turn so as to return to a nature,” which we have neglected throughout the whole of philosophy (74).
Overall then, this book is one of many in a push to reconsider and reevaluate nature, and our place within it. More importantly however, it joins the contemporary effort to utilize humanities research, especially philosophical research, to impact the global effort to combat our own actions that have proven devastating to the environment as well as to our very own nature. With that said, while this book expertly provides insight into how we ought to conceive of ‘nature’ such that a “return of nature” is possible, and even necessary, little is done to suggest where this might lead. The one effort made to provide a suggestion is what Sallis calls the “disintegration of difference” which involves the elimination of being a particular of being, and instead focused on the “plurality of being.” It is, Sallis writes, “precisely in being the kind it is, it would be devoid of selfsameness and so would not be a kind. There would be a disintegration of difference at the very heart of being” (119).
Sallis ends with questioning what this would lead to, but does not himself posit this future. Without this, the book almost feels incomplete. Unless, however, one considers this book amongst another which may perhaps put into perspective this emphasis on the plurality of being. Read together with the other works that complement each other in this emerging push for philosophy to influence practical issues, this book might be able to offer an alternative to our current mode of being in the world.
The Return of Nature is nevertheless an inspiring read which engages its readers from the very beginning. It can be read by anyone looking to open up their mind to the reflection on other ways to live more closely in tune with their own nature and to the nature that is around them.
Klaus Held, the ‘father of the Wuppertaler philosophy’, is without doubt one of the leading German phenomenologists of the present day. With his book Phänomenologie der natürlichen Lebenswelt, published in 2012, a collection of a number of separate lectures and articles (not all of them published previously), Held intends to tackle the urgent question of the ‘ecological crisis’. He does this by working his way back through some of those philosophical ideas that still influence today’s perception of nature. These are mainly from Kant and Aristotle, but he also goes back to the Pre-Socratics searching for answers that can help us reconsider our understanding of nature as life-world.
The book is divided into four major parts. The first two parts are dedicated to the concept of nature in Kant (first part) and Aristotle (second part), the third to addressing the question of elementary aspects in the life world, focusing on the Pre-Socratics Anaximander and Heraclitus. The final part presents an overview of particular aspects of reflections on the natural life-world such as the intercultural, the Japanese perspective as well as some final reflections on the topics of physis and birth.
The task of the book is, as Held states in the introduction, to investigate the ‘experience of the life-world as nature’ (p. 13). Held is very much aware of the fact that his choice of philosophers and the order in which the philosophers are discussed could be questioned or even be perceived as arbitrary. However, he presents a convincing argument for the composition of his book which proceeds in a hermeneutic and phenomenological manner, i.e. working through the dominating pre-judices (in a Gadamerian understanding). He makes it clear, that his book is not primarily looking at the history of philosophy but it is a phenomenological analysis of the life-world experience of nature (p. 13). And because the horizon of experience changes with the historical change of understanding of what nature means, any analysis only does justice to the object if it traces this hermeneutical change (p. 13). An investigation thus has to start from the modern objectivist understanding of nature of the natural sciences and therefore has to start with Kant who was the first thinker to establish this understanding with outstanding systematic clarity (pp. 13f.). Working historically ‘backwards’, Held aims at uncovering how we get through Kant as a bridge to a phenomenological analysis of Aristotle’s physis-thinking (showing also the impoverishment of the concept of nature in both thinkers) and from there to the Pre-Socratic understanding of nature and the elements. The latter is an important concept for Held, since unlike the modern idea of the elements, this Ancient idea still maintains a close connection between the elements and life (18ff). Held starts in his introduction with a brief history of the Western concept of nature. The wonder, thaumazein, which the Ancient philosophers felt, Held believes, is in danger of becoming lost in modern concepts. This feeling of awe and wonder when engaging with being is a topic Held will return repeatedly in his book as a linking concept.
The first part is dedicated to Kant’s understanding of nature. Held makes very clear that he does not intend to attempt a comprehensive analysis. Rather, his reflections on Kant aim at showing that even in the founding of the modern natural sciences a position can be found that leads back to early Greek thinking about the elements and nature (p. 26/27). The starting point for Kant arose out of the philosophical concerns of the past such as the established idea of interpreting theoretical knowledge in a technical manner or the question of certitude. Kant then, in the Critique of Pure Reason, according to Held, takes up Aristotle’s ‘defining of the definable’ in four ways: through defining the sensations, space and time, that which is given through the sensations through the spontaneity of thinking, and finally the differentiation of the formal and material concept of nature (p. 40). It becomes clear, according to Held, that the ‘possibility of the appearance and perception of nature as appearance has to be grounded in two fundamental principles: the a priori intuitions of space and time and the sensations’ (p. 58). This then leads to two fundamental principles which determine Kant’s concept of nature. Firstly, since appearances are characterized by extension in time and space they can be measured; an idea that still today is a central foundation of the natural sciences. The second principle is concerned with measuring the intensive quantity of that which is given in sensation. Two things are important here: First of all, it is a general human experience that sensations are always experienced with an intensity which varies, i.e. a more or less (p. 69; 75). In addition, while we cannot anticipate a priori which sensations will overcome us (Kant speaks of experiencing the real as resistance) we know that given sensations have a polar structure, i.e. the opposite is always present though in a hidden way – a point that will be taken up with the Pre-Socratics (p. 81).
The second part of the book is dedicated to Aristotle’s understanding of nature. Starting with the Aristotelian distinction between technē and physis, and basic ideas of Aristotle’s metaphysics such as the four causes, Held develops Aristotle’s views in relations to his predecessors. Held makes it clear that Aristotle’s distinction between technē and physis stems from a narrowing of the concept of nature that in itself does not pay attention to the two different horizons of being and need which led to the forgetting of the understanding of physis as beginning, as arché (p. 119). In addition, Held shows that by identifying physis with arché for Aristotle the beginning of being remains hidden in darkness. Held concludes the part on Aristotle by developing Aristotle’s concept of the four elemental qualities, the hot, the dry, the cold and the moist which through their combinations make up the qualities of the four elements of earth, fire, water and air (p. 164).
The third part of the book is dedicated to the elements in Ancient Greek thought with a focus on the Pre-Socratics, Anaximander and Heraclitus. In showing the insights as well as the limits of Aristotle’s metaphysics, Held gains an overview on the Pre-Socratics’ understanding of nature which is independent of Aristotle’s perspective and thus independent of the comparison between technē and physis (p. 186). The next chapter on Anaximander is unusual in so far as it is centred on a very careful analysis of the sources which Held quotes at length. That the arché is constantly present in physis means for Held that with Anaximander we can identify the following idea: because of the unbounded (ápeiron) character of physis, the beginning (arché) entails both light and darkness, and the appearance of light is at the same time the process of expanding limit as well as a retreat into the hiddenness (pp. 218f). The idea of physis entailing opposites is again picked up in the third chapter on Heraclitus. The presence of opposing elements such as both death and birth in life, illness in health etc., forms a non-apparent harmony in physis and thus an ontological dependence between the opposites. This is also an idea, according to, which is not possible in Plato’s thought and which influences so much of Western philosophy (pp. 239; 247). However, and Heraclitus makes this very clear, this insight into the functioning of the cosmos is not possible for the many. This is an important point for the phenomenological approach Held is using and we can see here, according to Held, how Heraclitus is in many ways the first to raise the question between philosophical thinking and natural attitude (p. 260).
The final part presents an overview on different aspects of the life-world and raises a number of questions. Held makes the point that all experiences are embedded in a horizon and that despite the goal of the natural sciences to achieve absolute objectivity, every situation in life is embedded in a universal context of references (p. 262). Especially within the context of globalization the question arises whether we will be able to develop one life-world for all humanity – one of the main questions a phenomenology of the life-world is concerned with (p. 266). One potential characteristic could be that developed by Husserl, the Umstandskausalität (p. 268). The relationship between nature (e.g. climate) and culture still needs to be further investigated phenomenologically (p. 278). As an example of a non-European perspective on nature and world, Held then develops some aspects of the Japanese outlook (pp. 279ff). Finally, Held rethinks the question of physis and birth as an example of our relationship to technology, a point to which we will return in our critical assessment below.
The book captivates the reader with its outstanding clarity, and this in two ways: Firstly, very complex philosophical considerations are developed in a clear and careful manner. Secondly, the structure: Held constantly presents the the reader with short and precise summaries at the beginning and the end of each chapter to show where he or she is, and shows how already developed positions lead on to the next part of the book, how answers are given to question posed earlier, and also what still needs to be developed. Held thus does not follow the postmodern trend of breaks in and throughout the history of philosophy, rather he shows how ideas are interconnected, influence each other and how seeing ideas through a particular lens sometimes obstructs a view of the actual concept.
Two critical points could be made. The first concerns referencing. Held works in the already familiar style of the phenomenologists which means references to sources used as well as other literature is scarce and one often wishes for further guidance as to where particular ideas can be found, especially when the reader might not be familiar with the texts. The second point is more ideological in nature and concerns Held’s conclusions in the final part. In using the example of birth, Held tries to show that through the taking over by téchne, and the loss of the ‘insurmountable subsequentness’ (unüberwindbare Nachträglichkeit) we are not only losing the experience of resistance which characterizes our experience of reality as such but also invoking the danger of excess (pp. 316ff). This stance evokes the distrust of the early phenomenologists (Scheler, Heidegger etc.) of technology and technological advancement. However, this stance is problematic for a number of reasons: from a metaphysical/anthropological point of view one could argue that the use of reason as exercised in the use of téchne belongs essentially to human nature and thus physis itself. Secondly, it ignores how the advances of technology and its application play a major role in reducing human suffering. Finally, one has to point out that any use of technology in the widest sense such as medicine, glasses, pacemakers, surgery but even clothes, computers, diving equipment etc., are an imposing of human téchne on the limitations of our (biological) nature. Thus to draw a line between one téchne and the other seems rather arbitrary.
Nonetheless, Held’s call for caution and the need for philosophical reflections regarding technology and nature is an important one. Again, the author’s considerations do not necessarily lead to his final personal conclusions. Thus, Held gives the reader the freedom to follow him or not. In addition, the reader benefits from Held’s expertise in phenomenology and Ancient Greek philosophy. Thus, one is left with an eloquently written, insightful and very balanced book which in a convincing way presents the thesis that the history of thought is all interconnected and that by seeing through our philosophical prejudices we uncover the insights of previous thinkers and make them relevant for today’s issues.