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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002) 148-163

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Contesting Nature/Culture:
The Creative Character Of Thinking

Jane Bennett and William E. Connolly


The Perplexity of Nature/Culture

Cultural theorists have recently been advised to keep their hands off nature as scientists study it. Unfortunately, it is impossible to abide by such advice. Every established conception of culture, identity, ethics or thinking contains an image of nature within it. And the relation goes the other way as well. Even the most adamant realist in, say, physics presupposes a cultural conception of how scientific cognition proceeds. To adopt the correspondence model of truth, for instance, is to act as if human capacities for cognition can be brought into correspondence with the way of the world separate from those capacities. Nietzsche would say that such a realism preserves the remains of a forgotten theology. 1 Its operational assumption that, first, the world has a deep, unchanging structure and, second, that such a structure is available to the cognition of some agent might appear highly improbable in a culture in which faith in a world created by a universal, omniscient God had not had a long run. Creationists and realists are thus closer to each other in their assumptions and hubris than either acknowledges. Absent the background of Christianity, it might seem more likely that human cognition has evolved in ways that help us to intervene in the world for our purposes rather than to hook onto it as it is in itself. And, of course, many contemporary scientists now accept something close to the more modest view.

In this essay we want to rethink the ideas of culture and thinking by engaging an image of nature that has not been given much of a run in western life. It seems to us that the Nietzschean picture of nature and science might enable us to rework those ideas. Given the recent work by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers in chemistry and the philosophy of science respectively, now may be a particularly apt time to reopen this side of Nietzsche's thought. And by [End Page 148] engaging Nietzsche's nature we may also learn something about the layered character and creative significance of thinking.

We admit that the enterprise we participate in is paradoxical at its core. Every cultural interpretation expresses an idea of nature; but because the partisans of each interpretation are themselves sunk in nature and culture, they lack a position above this field from which to reach definitive judgments about it. Unless, of course, they can bootstrap a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant to show that everyone must act as if nature can only be comprehended by one authoritative model. But so far every attempt to establish such a transcendental perspective as an unambiguous necessity has foundered on the same paradox we have just identified. So, we affirm the paradox of interpretation as a condition of possibility for the work we are doing. Moreover, we agree with Augustine, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard that thinking itself becomes a blunt and dull instrument if it tries to resolve rather to negotiate such paradoxes.

The Experience of Nature in Nietzsche and Prigogine

Nietzsche's views of science and nature are familiar enough. He defends modern science against attacks by Christian theologians. Nietzsche accepts a version of materialism as a "conjecture." Nonetheless, he criticizes the materialism of early modern science for its insistence that the world is governed by eternal laws discernible to a science properly organized. He thinks that the regulative idea of a world governed by invariant laws has been useful to human welfare and self-preservation; and he believes he can identify something in the evolutionary development of the human animal that encourages adoption of a law-like model of nature. Here is a formulation, for instance, about the evolution of the human tendency to treat similarities as if they were equalities:

Innumerable beings who made inferences in a way different from ours perished. . . . Those, for example, who did not know how to find often enough...


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