One thing—and it may be the only thing—is for sure about nature: nature, at times fecund in its way of being, is always fecund in concepts. One may argue whether nature is given, but no one can dispute the fact that nature is giving with concepts that say what it means to be nature. Even out of its detritus and putrefaction, as well as out of its barren spaces, it gives, or we should say it yields. Perhaps this is because it is itself the only concept that in its histories has yielded such extremely divergent sayings about itself: absolute chaos (Nietzsche) and absolute order (Aristotle, Aquinas, Newton, et al.), absolute necessity (Leibniz) and absolute contingency (Novalis), and what’s more, pure difference (Heraclitus) and pure identity (a view attributed to Parmenides). It also came to imply for Schelling the impossible unity of the two, difference and identity. Though open to these extremes, the concept of nature also obviously has often stopped at degrees in between. It can be found mostly in the middle today, at least in popular discourse on science, technology, and ecology.
If you could reel in its history and read its meanings side by side, the nature concept would be almost completely contradictory; phusis, natura—in a different way than the “universe” or the “cosmos” or the “biosphere”—yields before us and yields… much. It holds back its one true self and gives us a [End Page 1] multiplicity of concepts instead. One can only perhaps say about nature itself that it is barren. It desertifies and deserts us.
One thing the scholastics did not say when, upon reading Aristotle in translation from Arabic, they presented us with the distinction between natura naturata and natura naturans [‘yielding nature’ and ‘yielded nature,’ or so we could render it] was that the concept of nature grows out of itself in a way that other concepts, such as being, time, truth, even God, have not historically done. Nature grows out of its own inner contradictions and thereby outgrows the other great concepts. It is beyond them because it is beyond itself, because this is its nature, to desert us and leave us with richness. And in addition to conceptual fecundity, it has a peculiar rhetorical richness as well. Nature natures. This means that it produces itself as something other than itself and that its productive aspect outweighs and outproduces even its products. It also means that the word nature is productive. And it may be that these are the two sources of nature’s repeated fascination for thought: the sliding, shifting of the concepts, tending toward extremes, and the fecundity of the name that makes thought about nature, or about anything for that matter, able to take on the cast of nature, of essence.
Nature lends us names. Very often thought describes itself with terms taken from natural processes and events. And then these thoughts return to nature, so to speak, in a grand circle arising from the names in natural phenomena, transiting through language and history, and coming back to describe their “natural” origin. Thought steals names from nature in order to talk about itself and nature. This doesn’t only happen when thinkers (for example Gilles Deleuze) consciously remove terms and figures from natural registers and apply them to conceptual processes and events—“rhizome” for instance. It also happens unconsciously, as for instance when Aristotle models noesis on aesthesis, thinking on perception, and thinks of perception as “colored.”
What is at stake in any concept of nature is the degree to which it comes to terms with its inner relation to thinking and conceptualizing, to say nothing of naming and language. But this doesn’t have to be taken as an idealism. We can hardly go into detail here about these prickly problems, which have recently been given a new polemical urgency; I only want to suggest, by way of an introduction to this collection of “protocols for a new nature,” that what idealism claims—that nature is colored by thought—is also true in reverse. Thinking is colored by nature: whether in the more technical spheres of physics with the concepts...