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Day 28: Nature: A Political Term

In Charles W. Mills’ essay, “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race,” he offers an array of markers that are used to identify a person’s race–ancestry, immediate family, self-identity, appearance, experience, self-awareness of culture, and so forth.  He argues that the fact that we shift from one criterion to the next in identifying race suggests that we have a political not an epistemological investment in identifying race.  Put another way, it’s because we want to maintain a certain structure of power that we shift our notion of what race means in different settings so that it applies in ways that serve that power structure in different moments.  This move demonstrates that race is not something we wish to determine for the sake of some uninterested knowledge, but for political purposes.

While arguments against nature might be easier to make in terms of race, many more people think nature supports different roles for men and women.  Witness, Larry Summers.  Today, my Introduction to Gender Studies students came to the conclusion that we shift our definition of what nature means (either the ground for how things are or the thing that must be overcome) in a similar way to how we shift our definition of identity markers determine race.  The shifting senses of nature show that we are invested in nature as a category that grounds certain power structures rather than as a real ground that will give us information about how things out to be. We change what we mean by “nature” depending on what allows us to justify the way things are in a particular context.

We have been reading Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sex / Gender: Biology in a Social World.  Fausto-Sterling argues that studies of the biological basis for sex and gender can themselves be affected by assumptions about what sex and gender mean so that it isn’t clear whether the studies show more about our assumptions than about biological differences between sex and gender.  But even more interesting is her argument that biological differences between sex and gender can themselves be affected by environmental changes.  Temperature changes lead to variations in sex of offspring.  Different parenting environments or educational environments can lead to differences in brain structure.  The idea that there is a given, unchanging nature that determines how things ought to be does not appear supported by scientific study.

When we turn the tables and say, even if sex and gender differences were supported by some unchanging nature, human beings have long been resisting or changing nature, then we make judgments that some people seem better at that than others.  Students can easily recognize that they are not supposed to follow through on every impulse they have and they raised examples of how social contract theory was a way of resisting or overcoming nature.  If men are better at resisting their impulses, then men should be leaders.  In the same breath we say that women need to dress in particular ways because men’s sexual appetites are natural and can’t be helped.

Social contract theory similarly says, fine, nature doesn’t dictate how things should be, but the capacity to separate yourself from nature does.  We know from Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract and Mill’s The Racial Contract that this language leads to leaving those deemed more natural out of political life–women, non-Europeans of many origins, workers.  Those who can overcome the things we have associated with nature–bodies–those people are political.  Yet even the terms we use to judge who overcomes bodies are already rooted in views about gender–men’s apparently natural sexual appetites do not prevent them from entering political life.

The language of overcoming nature depends upon their being something fixed that needs to be overcome.  Putting aside whether and why “is does not imply ought” à la Hume, the notion that nature must prescribe is strange.  If nature prescribes, then you don’t have to do anything, it will just happen by nature.  If nature is what is, and what is can be otherwise, that ground kind of sucks at showing us what to do.

The discussion in the Gender Studies class brought home how this thing we think of as what remains the same and gives us direction for how to be–nature–is posited for political ends.  If certain roles for men and women can be properly grounded, either on nature as what prescribes or on the degree one can overcome nature, then power can be protected.  But if that ground is itself resting on shifting sand, then the disparities between the roles of men and women in society are social and political not ‘natural’.


I argue in my book on nature in Aristotle’s Politics that nature for Aristotle is not on the side of some givenness over and against historical or social realities, but that nature in Aristotle is an internal source whereby we move from within ourselves to fulfill ourselves through our capacities to organize our existence.  If this sense of nature is a ground, it is a ground in a very limited sense and it is a ground that always takes what it is and what it should be working toward as an issue for itself.  I use that reading strategically to make a claim about how to think about community as always underway, in process and in relation to others, not reducible to laws and institutions and not completed by those laws or institutions, and not set up against what it is not.  A reference to nature allowed me to ground political life as something that we were always already within as part of our being human, rather than making self-interested rational determinations about how to best achieve our ends that put the community in the service of those ends, allowing us to dissolve it when it ceased to fill those ends.  I am saying then that for Aristotle, being engaged with others is necessary for our flourishing because it is a part of who we are.  But the being engaged with others only tells us that we need to work on being engaged with others.  On these terms, someone left out of community, Philoctetes, for example, would not be judged to be less than human; rather, the exclusion of Philoctetes would become a question for the community for how it can thrive in light of the exclusion of one who shows himself to belong by making the complaint of his exclusion.  There is a dimension of what remains the same here, I admit, but this sense of nature offers a justification of community that does not distinguish between those who nature dictates to be capable and those it does not.  In a sense, I think this sense of nature dissolves the opposition between nature and culture that finds human input and engagement to be opposed to the way things are.

Photograph taken at Washington Park, Portland, OR.

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