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Reconciling with nature? The ecological question is a philosophical question!


Column by philosopher Gabrielle Halpern


"In view of the climate emergency, the word ecology has become omnipresent; companies, administrative bodies and even schools are now thinking about how to play their part and take responsibility. However, beyond the concrete actions being implemented - sorting, recycling, sobriety, etc. - it could well be that the real problem is deeper and lies elsewhere. Indeed, the issue of ecology can only be solved when we reconsider our relationship with nature; it will only be solved when we change our way of understanding nature. The issue of the environment is first and foremost a philosophical issue!


A close study[1] of Western thought, from Antiquity to the present day, reveals three periods that correspond to three successive ways of approaching nature - humanism, anthropocentrism and transhumanism. The Presocratics, then Plato, Aristotle and others aimed to explain nature by gradually building up the sciences. The human being was no longer 'thrown' into the world, among other animals and passive like them, but gradually became a subject, capable of imagining the world. The incomprehensible was transformed into comprehensible, causes and consequences were discovered for natural events and, in so doing, we were able to anticipate them, to prepare for them. Man transformed the uncertain into the predictable, or at least the explicable. This was the advent of humanism, which brought humanity into the history of the world.


Then came the modern era, which was no longer satisfied with simply helping human beings to exist. They had to be placed at the centre of nature and their superiority over other animals had to be acknowledged. Explaining nature was no longer enough; we now had to master it, to make ourselves 'masters and possessors' of it, as the philosopher René Descartes wrote and as many others have defended. In this new anthropocentrism, the unforeseeable began to be repressed, not as negligible, but as insignificant. In a letter[2] written by René Descartes[3] to Benedetto Castelli[4], an Italian Benedictine monk and mathematician, a disciple of Galileo, the philosopher declares, for example, that we should no longer speak of 'nature'. It is all too 'suspicious' [5], confused and obscure: there is something magical and uncertain about nature that is too similar to the world in which our ancestors lived. It is better to speak of 'matter' - a much more stringent, clear and precise category. This is not a simple change of word; it is a disruption in the relationship of Man with nature, and indeed, in Man's relationship with reality. By revising the language, Descartes shows the way in which nature should be considered. Everything that has to do with the fuzzy, the hybrid[6], the uncertain, the unpredictable, everything that is beyond man, must be erased. Nature' escapes man, while 'matter' is malleable at will. Nature is no longer what is in front of man or what man lives in; it suddenly becomes simple clay that man can knead, shape, handle, manipulate, adjust, at will. Is this the exact moment when the notion that man can have a determining influence on Nature to the point of metamorphosing it, and cutting it into pieces to put it into useful boxes - 'natural resources' - finds its seeds, its justification and its ideology? Didn't Immanuel Kant write that "we ourselves introduce order and regularity into the phenomena we call nature"? The modern era has seen the emergence of an immense desire to master the universe.


And here we are in our contemporary world, a world that we are no longer satisfied with trying to explain or dominate, but which we intend to recreate from scratch. This is why we try to create artificial rain and snow, for example. In this desire to re-create nature, Man intends to annihilate any possibility of unpredictability; he intends to deny Nature any possibility of escaping him. He no longer asserts himself only as a different animal, at the centre of the world; transhumanism intends to make him an omnipotent, omniscient and immortal god.


The crisis we are going through isn't primarily ecological, economic, financial, social, institutional, territorial, political or to do with energy; what we are experiencing is above all a crisis in our relationship with reality".


[1] Gabrielle Halpern, "Let's all be centaurs! A celebration of hybridisation", Le Pommier, 2020.

[2] Descartes René, "Lettre from René Descartes to Castelli dated 21 December 1613", Dialogues et lettres choisies, Paris, Hermann, 1987, p. 384.

[3] Courcelles (de) Dominique, "Revisiting Bachelard's work", Goûter la Terre, Histoire culturelle et philosophique des éléments, Paris, Études et rencontres de l'École des Chartes, 2016, p. 124.

[4] Castelli Benedetto, 1577-1643.

[5] Descartes René, "Lettre from René Descartes to Castelli dated 21 December 1613", Dialogues et lettres choisies, Paris, Hermann, 1987, p. 384.

[6] Gabrielle Halpern, "Let's all be centaurs! A celebration of hybridisation", Le Pommier, 2020.

[7] Gabrielle Halpern, PhD thesis "Thinking hybrid", defended at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, 15 March 2019 https://www.theses.fr/2019LYSEN004

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