Notebook, 1993-



The introduction/Nature, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.


The Introduction to this section is presented below [notes have not yet been transcribed]. The following is a list of the articles presented in this section of The Modern Tradtion on Nature:



Mechanical Force


Nature - Introduction
The realist is predominantly a social man, and the symbolist a solitary mind, but the public world of the one and the imaginative world of the other are closely engaged with the natural world that surrounds them. Even though immediate contact with nature has become a relatively small part of modern experience, ideas of nature still bulk large in the modern consciousness. We apprehend it as both biological and physical, and in both of these dimensions it has more than one aspect. It is a principle of biological struggle, of battle for survival, yet it is also a principle of organic harmony, vital unison in things. It is automatic material energy, a complex of mechanical physical forces that menace human existence; but in still another perspective it may be seen as the very source and sanction of human inventiveness, or even as a construction of human intelligence, created by scientists in the course of physical experiment.

Darwin depicts a biological nature wherein species of living things arise in fantastic profuseness, to disappear or persist depending upon their adaptability to the conditions of life. All living creatures are engaged in an endless struggle with their physical environment, including other creatures; and it is the total economy of nature, not some intrinsic value in the individual or the species, that determines the outcome of their battle to survive.^ Though this theory of "natural selection" may seem to destroy the traditional stability of nature and many moral values traditionally associated with the natural world, it does not appall Darwin. He finds a reassuring symmetry and basic wholeness in the world he pictures. He conceives of nature as a generative principle that he can still compare, in the traditional way, to a woman--or to a great tree whose branches, whether they grow or fall, do so according to an ultimately creative and harmonious urge. The complicated forms of life as known today need not conceal the essential simplicity of nature, for all these forms are related and ramify either from one simple ancestral form or at least from a very small number of primordial forms.^

In Schopenhauer's more metaphysical conception, both organic and inorganic [p. 381] nature are manifestations of the Will, the reality behind all the phenomenal objects of which we have "ideas." The metaphysical Will, eternally at "variance with itself," is grand but purposeless. It is a "will to live," and as such it is reflected in the multiple forms of natural life; but its "living" is no more than a drive to remain in existence, a sheer activity or energy that is notably reflected in the blind forces of inorganic matter.^ If for Darwin life is a flourishing tree, Schopenhauer characteristically calls attention to the way a tree is smothered by a vine, much as one gravitational pull overcomes another. His nature is a vista of frantic crowding and clutching by things affirming themselves. Yet the Will, as Schopenhauer conceives it, is one and eternal, and the natural world, though all particular things are transitory, is its eternal mirror. While Darwin's theory is more affirmative and sanguine and can lead to the concept of evolutionary "progress," Schopenhauer's pessimism is not without consolation. The individuals that are born, struggle, and die constitute an immortal process, though an aimless one. The forms of nature, its conflicting Ideas, are perennial [Schopenhauer does not contemplate the disappearance of species], even though the individual thinker and his ideas, as well as the particular objects he knows, are doomed to vanish.^

Whitehead is preoccupied with organisms in relation to their environment, and at the same time he is seeking to interpret the world of physics, the science of inorganic energy. But he is quite different from both Darwin and Schopenhauer in his central concern--the structure of nature and the way we come to know it. He regards the official philosophy of early twentieth-century science, which he traces back to the seventeenth century, as misleading because of its mechanistic assumptions: it makes objects falsely self-sufficient and isolates them from the minds that apprehend them. Whitehead would establish instead a recognition that he finds first expressed in the romantic poets: we do not perceive particular elements in nature as discrete entities, to the exclusion of other elements or to the exclusion of ourselves.^ Things and the perception of things are events, modes of interaction with other events in space and time. Parts of nature assume individuality by drawing the surrounding world into themselves and delimiting it; but these individual unities must also be seen in terms of larger unities of which they are functions. As in a plant, the whole dominates each part, and as in organic growth every partial whole virtually contains the whole that transcends it.^

The romantic poets cited by Whitehead often associate this organic structure of nature with a vital spirit--"one life within us and abroad"--that renders [p. 282] nature everywhere alive and urgent. Romantic vitalism has persisted into later literature. Rilke desires to touch the mysterious life in a landscape and to reconcile, in a moment of art, the individual with the All, the human with the non-human but somehow animate world of nature. Proust is similarly convinced of a kind of mana or divinity [though he avoids all such general terms] inhabiting the hawthorn; and Gide, enraptured by fruits of the earth, finds in them example and sanction for human freedom. Yet for these writers the life of nature is as elusive as it is fascinating. Rilke and Proust record a sense of exclusion from the vital spirit that attracts them. Their reward comes only in rare moments, or endlessly escapes, and even Gide has an air of asserting a greater revelation than he has actually experienced. For Lawrence, Pan is a potentiality no longer actual in most of the human world, though always ready to live again if men can find him. Once rooted downward and reaching upward like a tree, Pan has been killed by the machine.^

For others, real nature is mechanical--the inhumanity and the uncontrollability of natural force are its distinctive [and may even be its most humanly valuable] characteristics. Henry Adams finds that the old, benign natural order has become inconceivable to the mind of this century. We are situated in a chaotic multiverse, subjected to an "insanity of force."^ Instead of the image of the mother, Aphrodite or the Madonna, the symbol of our attempt to achieve equilibrium with nature must be the dynamo, which tries to humanize and rationalize an essentially impersonal and irrational power. Adams deplores this new world, in which machines are the most important inhabitants, though at times it greatly excites him. The world of force delights Marinetti, whose Futurism celebrates a mechanized humanity. Marinetti extols machines for their amorality, their speed, their mad strength, and wants men to imitate them.^ At times D. H. Lawrence, who is usually opposed to mechanism, responds to this same fascination of non-human force: he proposes to treat people as inorganic solids and energies rather than sickeningly personal "minds."

With the indeterminists [William James, Dewey, and Heisenberg are various examples], "nature" is one of the few large words that may still be used with any confidence. Like Whitehead, these writers are concerned with the implications of scientific method; but whereas WhItehead introduces an organic structure into the universe of classical physics, they propose a purely experimental world where everything, whether a "fact" or a "theory," is tentative. In some ways their results are the same. For James and Dewey, as for [p. 383] Whitehead, the distinction between subjective and objective realms and between idealism and materialism becomes irrelevant. Both an "object" and the "concept" of the "object" are natural, and they are events or occurrences in nature, not static entities. But James and Dewey emphasize the openness of nature, the way in which "truth" grows and changes in the experimental process of the world. Theories are instrumental expedients, temporary bridges between aspects of the natural experience they describe and of which they are part.^ Within the sphere of physical science, Heisenberg confirms this principle of indeterminacy, which James and Dewey apply on a larger scale to all human knowledge and activity. For the physicist, the content of "nature" has become largely relative to the instruments through which it is apprehended. The mere observation of minute particles is now known to affect their behavior. In many cases, natural "laws" must be viewed as statistical formulas rather than eternal sequences of cause and effect. All three of these writers envisage a world without fixed and universal attributes--incomplete, emergent, and even contradictory.^ [p. 384]

[The introduction/Nature, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]



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