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Does the concept of nature have any force or function in ethics? Strong theorists today generally answer “no.” Judith Butler and John Rawls, while they may agree on little else, both dispense with nature as a normative category. When the category of the natural appears in the humanities today (at least where postmodernism or social constructivism hold sway), it is usually seen as a component of the “rhetoric of reaction,” and it seems to operate under the sign of cultural imperialism and ideological domination (Hirschman, 1991). Philosophically, the concept of the normatively natural and the concept of human nature seem to entail an outmoded ethnocentric and antihistorical essentialism. Nature is an ideological category used to impose rules and values on a society or on certain marginalized groups within society. This was not always so. In this chapter I explore and seek to recover a mode of discourse in which the concept of nature or the natural is substantive and central yet avoids the philosophical pitfall of reactionary essentialism in which it is no longer plausible (or possible) to believe. I find the mode of discourse I seek in early-modern social contract theory, especially the versions of that theory developed by Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I approach this analysis more in the fashion of a literary critic and a historian of ideas than as a moral or environmental philosopher. I do not seek in these texts a theory to defend. I aim instead to understand how important concepts and chapter Three Nature as Absence The Logic of Nature and Culture in Social Contract Theory Bruce Jennings, M.A. 30 Bruce Jennings categories take on their meaning within larger conceptual and philosophical frameworks. I am interested especially in how such frameworks both enable and impede the expression of certain insights and understandings. All theorists, like all speakers of natural language, must employ conceptual frameworks that are available to them in their historical context (Pocock, 1973). Like poets, strong theorists may exercise unusual creativity in how they shape and deploy these conceptual frameworks, but they are not free to invent a whole new language for expressing original ideas. The thinkers I find most interesting struggle with their inherited and available discourses and conceptual frameworks, pushing concepts to, and a little past, the limits of their conventional meanings, finding ambivalence where only valence had been seen before. Social contract theory as a genre of discourse is one such enabling and constraining framework, and Hobbes and Rousseau are strong theorists who strive to say more than can be said within it. The drama of their thought—if not all the lines of its script—should once more become the drama of our own. I also turn to study the conceptual structure of early social contract theory because in it one finds a rich, complex, and nuanced understanding of three master categories of modern thought, if not of Western thought as a whole: nature, culture, and humanity or humanness. Hobbes and Rousseau did not consider nature to be the foundation or the limiting essence determining the content of morality. They did not see culture as a veneer overlaying nature, nor did they see nature as a mere figment of cultural imagination, a construct. Like Wittgensteinian philosophical therapists, avant la lettre, they set those unprofitable questions aside in favor of a different way of thinking. They changed the subject. The new question is: How do the natural and the cultural interpenetrate and combine to produce the human? Nature alone cannot realize humanity. The divine is no longer on stage, nor is it part of the story the early contractarians tell. Culture brings forth humanity—by which I mean human self-realization and the human good—on both the individual and the communal level. But culture can do this only by reaching into and drawing on nature. Culture can also deform and corrupt; it can actualize the human stain as well as the human good. In either case, culture is in concert with nature to produce some form of humanity. An important passage from On the Social Contract adumbrates the possibilities of a perspective that moves away from natural or ontological essentialism, although we must bear in mind that it is only one of several formulations Rousseau offers on this recurring theme—indeed, the master theme—of his work. “The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a remarkable change in man,” Rousseau Nature as Absence 31 writes, “by substituting justice...


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