Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Category: nature


Today is beautifully sunny.  I just completed a draft of an article on Mill and Wordsworth on the appreciation of nature, which has makes the sunshine even more golden than it otherwise would be.  The next piece of work I have set myself to do is on Kantian accounts on similar themes.  As always with Kant, I am rather daunted.  I decided to take my copy of the Critique of Judgment down to the lake and settle on a fishing platform by the side of the water where the sun’s light danced through the trees, knowing but not caring that I would be easily distracted.





§ 61. Of the objective purposiveness of Nature

We have on transcendental principles good ground to assume a subjective purposiveness in nature, in its particular laws, in reference to its comprehensibility by human Judgement and to the possibility of the connexion of particular experiences in a system. This may be expected as possible in many products of nature, which, as if they were devised quite specially for our Judgement, contain a specific form conformable thereto; which through their manifoldness and unity serve at once to strengthen and to sustain the mental powers (that come into play in the employment of this faculty); and to which therefore we give the name of beautiful forms…

I tried to think as streaks of sunlight flashed along the rushes in time to their motion in the water.  A silver-blue damselfly resembled an Art Nouveau brooch.  Gradually I became aware that every the space between the rushes was punctuated with them. I noticed that there were two different types, the first striped with blue and black along the length of its body, the other looking like two azure dots connected with the thinnest filament of black that seemed to serve as its abdomen.  It was difficult to believe that those of the latter kind were actually living things.  After a while, the females, more subdued in their colours and markings, started to come into focus, settling on rushes and forming mating pairs with the males, the two bodies often flying attached through the air, forming a single eight-winged form among the translucent thistle seeds that drifted over the lake.

…But that the things of nature serve one another as means to purposes, and that their possibility is only completely intelligible through this kind of causality—for this we have absolutely no ground in the universal Idea of nature, as the complex of the objects of sense. In the above-mentioned case, the representation of things, because it is something in ourselves, can be quite well thought a priori as suitable and useful for the internally purposive determination of our cognitive faculties; but that purposes, which neither are our own nor belong to nature (for we do not regard nature as an intelligent being), could or should constitute a particular kind of causality, at least a quite special conformity to law,—this we have absolutely no a priori reason for presuming. Yet more, experience itself cannot prove to us the actuality of this; there must then have preceded a rationalising subtlety which only sportively introduces the concept of purpose into the nature of things, but which does not derive it from Objects or from their empirical cognition. To this latter it is of more service to make nature comprehensible according to analogy with the subjective ground of the connexion of our representations, than to cognise it from objective grounds…

A trick of the light drew my eye to what I thought was one of the damselfly, but which on inspection was motion below the surface of the lake just at the foot of the platform, which was suddenly alive with hundreds and thousands of tiny translucent fish all following the same motion in swarming clouds.  Casting my eye further out, the lake was a heaving unified mass of little fish, stretching out as far as I could see before the underwater horizon where light below the surface was subsumed in the rippling reflection of the cloudless sky.  Larger brown fish, still only an inch or two long, cut swathes through these crowds.  I knew that further out there would be much larger fish, glassy eyed, hovering in the inaccessible waters at the centre.

…Further, objective purposiveness, as a principle of the possibility of things of nature, is so far removed from necessary connexion with the concept of nature, that it is much oftener precisely that upon which one relies to prove the contingency of nature and of its form. When, e.g. we adduce the structure of a bird, the hollowness of its bones, the disposition of its wings for motion and of its tail for steering, etc., we say that all this is contingent in the highest degree according to the mere nexus effectivus of nature, without calling in the aid of a particular kind of causality, namely that of purpose (nexus finalis). In other words, nature, considered as mere mechanism, could have produced its forms in a thousand other ways without stumbling upon the unity which is in accordance with such a principle. It is not in the concept of nature but quite apart from it that we can hope to find the least ground a priori for this…

The reflections of gulls swooped over the surface of the water, part solid animal, and partly constituted by the currents of air upon which they glided.  A water boatman dragged himself, upside down, under the surface.  He lives in an inverted world, on a viscous blue-painted floor, below a dark stony sky.  Birds swim far beneath in another medium, while fish glide and float above.

…Nevertheless the teleological act of judgement is rightly brought to bear, at least problematically, upon the investigation of nature; but only in order to bring it under principles of observation and inquiry according to the analogy with the causality of purpose, without any pretence to explain it thereby. It belongs therefore to the reflective and not to the determinant judgement. The concept of combinations and forms of nature in accordance with purposes is then at least one principle more for bringing its phenomena under rules where the laws of simply mechanical causality do not suffice. For we bring in a teleological ground, where we attribute causality in respect of an Object to the concept of an Object, as if it were to be found in nature (not in ourselves); or rather when we represent to ourselves the possibility of the Object after the analogy of that causality which we experience in ourselves, and consequently think nature technically as through a special faculty. If we did not ascribe to it such a method of action, its causality would have to be represented as blind mechanism. If, on the contrary, we supply to nature causes acting designedly, and consequently place at its basis teleology, not merely as a regulative principle for the mere judging of phenomena, to which nature can be thought as subject in its particular laws, but as a constitutive principle of the derivation of its products from their causes; then would the concept of a natural purpose no longer belong to the reflective but to the determinant Judgement. Then, in fact, it would not belong specially to the Judgement (like the concept of beauty regarded as formal subjective purposiveness), but as a rational concept it would introduce into natural science a new causality, which we only borrow from ourselves and ascribe to other beings, without meaning to assume them to be of the same kind with ourselves…

There is a tremendous splash among the rushes on my right, and a lovely Old English sheepdog flops into the lake, fracturing the surface into miniature tidal waves.  Birds and fish scatter, wheeling in the sky and forming new eddies in the water.  He paddles round towards me, poking his nose inquisitively out of the water like a baby seal.  He bounds amicably onto the platform and greets me, energised by the cold water saturating his fur.  He shakes himself. Water droplets land on my warm skin, and punctuate Kant’s long sentences.

Romanticism (June 15th 2012)

Thinks it is sad how the word ‘romantic’ has taken on the kinds of associations that it has over the past hundred years or so. It has come to be connected to a particular kind of ‘love’, narrowly defined, between two people, taken apart from a community, and turned in upon each other. First there is the individual, then there is the couple, and then, perhaps, a very small nuclear family. ‘Roman…ce’ or ‘romanticism’, with the tonnes of expenditure and consumer waste that it creates is part of the perpetuation of this structure.

‘If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.’
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

It is also bound up with fairy tales, and with archetypes that real human beings constantly fail to measure up to. Even where ‘romantic’ is taken in a wider sense than the common use, it is often used to refer to what is unrealistic, what belongs in some fanciful world that lies beyond or above our own, and has little to do with what is really going on. Hence we have the positive ‘Ooooh, he’s so romantic’, alongside the negative ‘Isn’t that suggestion / political programme / view of humanity rather romantic?’

The romantic movement in art and literature was concerned in many cases with the real situations of people, and with what was present and possible in reality. ‘Jerusalem’ was not a distant land, or a promise of the next life, but rather something that we could build right here if we were prepared to take up the fight.

Yes, there was a sense that life was more than immediate appearances, but the beauty and truth of life was immanent in the world, not removed from it. Blake, Wordsworth and co.’s romanticism was rooted in the earth, both in the appreciation of the natural world and in the political aims of improving the situation of humanity.

Similarly, romanticism was about love, but the love that it describes is at once more general and more specific than the ‘romantic love’ of hearts and flowers and candlelight. It was more specific because of the immanence of truth and beauty in the particular. Features of each person, each object of natural beauty, each situation, demanded a loving attention that could only be achieved through an openness and receptivity to what that particular had to offer.

At the same time, such attentiveness leads the romantic, at least in Wordsworth’s case, to an understanding of how nature operates on many levels, and how it has a unity as well as a particularity. For Wordsworth, human beings are part of this. This is why the romantic can embrace the ideas of individuality, originality and self-direction, while having a deep and serious account of the notion of human fellowship. Through loving things in their particularity, we can achieve something like the idea of agape. It is only through this attention to the particular, and not through imposing preconceived abstractions or theoretical models that this becomes possible.

This is not to speak out against the notion of ‘romantic love’ as we might usually understand it. I would be a fool to do that. Rather, it is to say that the sort of attentiveness that we can have to a particular person should both reflect and absorb the idea that we are situated in a world that nurtures and supports us. The reclamation of the romantic is personal, political and ecological.

Wordsworth and Nature (June 11th 2012)

‘Unlike the variegated, intense whirl of cities, the Lake District impressed on the mind just a few permanent objects, but ones that changed subtly with the weather, the seasons and the characteristic activities pursued at different times of year. Instead of meaningless differences, random variety and blank confusion, the setting of life in rural England conveyed a sense of order and permanence, …of change within stable and predictable limits. In this sense Renaissance Platonism lived on in Wordsworth’s poetry, with the Forms now drawn down from the transcendent realm and objectified in rocks, mountains, lakes and forests.’ ~ Lewis and Sandra Hinchman, ‘What We Owe the Romantics’ Environmental Values 16 (2007)I think that there is something in this, although the Platonism connection is a little peculiar. I think that the abandonment of the ‘transcendent realm’ identified here is precisely what distinguishes Wordsworth from the Platonists, and it isn’t at all clear what talk of ‘the Forms’ could mean, beyond talk of form.

I think on the whole what is said about Wordsworth here is dead right though. Personally, I experience this a lot less in dramatic landscapes like the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, and a lot more in Norfolk, where the flat mercurial watery landscape quietly reflects every subtle change in the big open skies.

The lack of drama in these landscapes took me a while to get used to (I have a tendency to be more Shelley than Byron, more expressionist than impressionist in my rather overblown tastes) but the change in my surrounding landscape is concurrent with the development of my thinking over the past year. The East Anglian landscape, like Wordsworth’s poetry, forces you to be passively attentive to the land, rather than simply to venture into it as some kind of thrill seeker.