(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community. This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)
As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world. Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world. We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way. That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.
As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”
To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world. Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing. As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right? It’s right because it seems like the only way. It is right because it has always been done that way. It is right because it is what everyone you know does. But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right. Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television. Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did. Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach.
When you recognize that the way that you do things is not the way other people do things you begin to see that you only thought that way was right and good because it was your people’s way. Confronted with other ways, you begin to ask, which is best? We call convention the idea that something is good because it is what you and your group do. People begin to ask what is the way that is right not by agreement or custom but because it is right. The investigation into this question introduced the notion that something could be right not by convention but by nature. It was what should be done because of something beyond human agreement. The reference to nature becomes the adjudicator when two ways of doing things that had previously considered themselves the only way recognize that there is another way and have to then ask, what is the right way. You can see then how this reference to nature is a turn to philosophizing because it prompts a demand for reasons where before there had been mere acceptance.
Other kids, it turns out, have televisions. Why don’t we have a television? Because it stunts your imagination. Why don’t you want me to stunt my imagination? Because it isn’t good for you. That’s really where the argument always ends up. It isn’t good for you. And that really is where much of the philosophizing happens. What’s good for you? What’s your basis for thinking imagination is good? What’s your basis for thinking the flourishing of all your capacities is good? You need reasons.
Nature becomes the reason par excellence. Nature becomes the reason that needs no further reasons. Nature is the reason that says this is the way things are and shall be. Nature seems to be the way that the world springs forth unbidden, and yet we find, human decisions and interests may have made what appears natural to be that way.
Consider for example the way that we organize the public and private spheres. The ancient Greeks kept women hidden within the household so much so that men had great anxiety about what they were doing in the way of reproduction that male doctors began intervening on the domain that had been that of female midwives. In the 16th and 17th centuries, after feudalism, women were again found in the private sphere, responsible for birthing and raising children and maintaining the home. It is easy then to look at the gender distribution of men at work and women in the home as the natural one, and to suppose that women leaving the home and working outside of is unnatural, or at least unnecessary in the way that men working outside of the home seems necessary. Historian Silvia Federici has shown that women and men worked side by side before the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. In their histories of women in the middle ages and the Renaissance respectively, Shulamith Shahar and Margaret L. King note that women held many occupations in the late Middle Ages that were later considered male: women worked as smiths, butchers, bakers, hat-makers, ale-brewers, wool-carders and retailers. In Marty Williams and Anne Echols book on women in the middle ages, they find that in Frankfurt Germany, 200 occupations were counted as held by women between 1300 and 1500. The demand for factory workers with the rise of capitalism coupled with the falling population after the Black Plague motivated communities to enforce reproductive roles on women where they had not been enforced before. Birth control that had been available to women during the Middle ages was banned. New laws placed a premium on marriage and penalized celibacy. Unwed mothers were deprived of support. Hosting unmarried pregnant women was made illegal. Once again male doctors replaced midwives. As historian Ulinka Rublack has found, in Germany in the late 16th and 17th centuries, women could be and were reported to authorities by their husbands and sometimes imprisoned as a result if they were found not to make enough of an effort during child birth. Part of this enforcement was forcing women out of the shared public space where men and women worked together on common lands into separated private spaces.
Historical and political decisions with an investment in population rates and the need to grow the labor market over time lead to the view that it is the natural order of things for women to want to stay home with the children and for men to leave home and work, a view that we saw in the senatorial candidate from Missouri who recently said, “I want to come home to a home cooked dinner at six every night, one that she fixes and one that I expect one day to have my daughters learn to fix after they become traditional homemakers and family wives.” He wrote of his relationship with his fiancé that he wanted his world to be more Norman Rockwell — the painter known for his depictions of classic American life — than the feminist Gloria Steinem. As he put it, “”I don’t buy into radical feminism’s crazed definition of modern womanhood and I never did. They don’t own that definition — and never did. They made it up to suit their own nasty, snake-filled heads.” He went on to say about his future children: “I don’t want them [to] grow up into career obsessed banshees who [forgo] home life and children and the happiness of family to become nail-biting manophobic hell-bent feminist she devils.”
Women working outside the home. It’s unnatural. It’s what comes from those snake-filled heads of banshee feminists. Even if it’s accepted, it’s considered conventional, not necessary, maybe even a little whimsical. The problem is that nature and arguments with recourse to nature present themselves as if there is no alternative, when in fact there is. This presentation of things as the natural way in order to justify a particular way is called ideology. Ideology presents as natural, necessary and obvious what is formed by human decision and so capable of being otherwise, requiring justifications and arguments. By presenting it as natural, ideology makes the way things have been constructed seem like the only possibility and the best possibility.
Nature becomes ideology when we don’t know the history of how something came to be the case. Consider the example of pink and blue as the girl and boy colors. Everybody knows that pink is the girl color and blue is the boy color. I mean it’s obvious. Blue just feels more, you know, masculine. Pink is soft and girly. But in the 1910s, mothers were encouraged in popular publications such as the Ladies Home Journal to dress their boys in pink and their girls in blue. Pink was associated with boys because it was deemed a stronger color, and blue was considered dainty and delicate. Catholic traditions have long associated blue with the Virgin Mary. Boys only began moving away from pink in the 1930s when Nazi Germany used the pink triangle to identify and stigmatize homosexual men. It was only then that pink became associated with girls, and today, you hear parents scolding their boy children in the store for picking out pink colors as it if is obviously natural and necessary that boys like blue.
Or consider the ways that we organize our space that make it seem natural based on our assumptions of who the people are who are trying to move through the space. We consider some people disabled because they cannot move through the same world that able-bodied people can move through. But disability advocates argue that disability is about how the world is organized not about the people who we consider to have disabilities. Counters are at a height for people who are standing. Teaching with notes presented on a board and having no large print versions of material sets up the world for people who can see. Presenting videos with no captioning supposes in advance that everyone can hear. Curbs on sidewalks are for parking cars not for ease of movement of people in wheelchairs. We suppose that the able-bodied person is radically self-sufficient because the world is organized to allow the able-bodied person to get around, but not for the person with disabilities. Then we assume that the way we organize the world is the only way, the right way, the natural way and that those who can’t do so are disabled instead of seeing the disabilities as what result from the way the world is organized. Brick paths are nice but they are hard for wheelchairs and blind people to traverse with so many possibilities for tripping. Even the body which we think of as natural we suppose has a natural best way of being instead of seeing the way we organize the world as enabling some and disabling others. Disability advocates argue that naturalizing the world organized as for able-bodied people ignores the decisions people make to set up the world to be accessible to some and difficult for others in a way that produces those others as abnormal.
Or consider the ways that we construct the work day. The typical 9 to 5 work day assumes that the person who works has someone who does not work available to take care of children. But there is nothing necessary to the 8 hour work day. The 8 hour work day dates to Robert Owen who advocated against the factory owners efforts to have workers work 10-16 hours a day. He advocated for eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest, a plan that was not implemented until the early 20th century. But there is no scientific data that says this is the amount of time that will make employees most productive. In fact, studies suggest that the human mind can focus on a task for 90 minutes to two hours and then benefits from a 20 to 30 minute break. The work day could be a series of two hour blocks. It could end at 3 for everyone and then men and women alike could pick up children from school without anyone needing extra accommodations that might make them stand out and seem difficult – “disabled” from the point of view of the 9 to 5 work day. Organizing the work day in a way that excludes certain people because of obligations specific to some people would be like scheduling classes on MWF at 11 am in the Spring semester – you could say the class was open to everyone, but effectively, since all freshmen are in EQ at that time, it would exclude them as a group of people from the course.
When we assume that the work day is natural and therefore the best and proper way, or the way we organize our space is the best and proper way because it is obvious and easy for us, we ignore the ways that it disadvantages some people and then we call possible changes efforts to play to special interests. The fact is that the day itself is set up for special interests, but then made to seem natural or obvious. It is so easy for the world that is organized to support certain interests to appear to us to be just the natural way things are.
This move produces a social hierarchy. It makes what has become custom on the basis of historical and political decisions the accepted way and then insists that it is natural, not due to human decision in order to insist that it continue to be this way.
We have then gone full circle with the idea of nature. It started out as a way to think about what was right when we came to realize that the way our people did things was not the only way. But now nature as a concept works to cover over that which we think is right only because it is all we have ever known.
Or finally, think about the notion that came up in our discussions of the #metoo movement earlier this month that it is natural for men to be chivalrous. Without understanding the history of chivalry it seems fair enough. But once we see how chivalry goes back to the days of the knights, who set out to rescue the damsel in distress, and how modern notions of chivalry treat women as damsels in distress, and that treating women as damsels in distress produces them as needy beings who need the protection of men and who are there for men to prove their manliness, we can start to see this naturalness covers of an ideology that keeps women in subordinate and passive roles. In that #metoo panel the conversation came around to holding doors open. But let me tell you how I think this “turning women into needy beings” works in the holding doors situation. I’ve walked up to doors with empty hands at various times when students who have their hands full try to open the door for me. I try to insist on holding the door for them because it seems obvious that the person with empty hands should open the door, right? Now, I know there is no ill will here. I know that students are trying to do what they think is expected. But you see, that’s the thing – that’s how ideology works, by hiding itself in good will, and covering over the ways it works to maintain a social order where women are considered those who need help and men are those who give help, women are the objects to be taken care of and men are the subjects who do the caring. The problem isn’t each individual student who holds a door open. It’s the ways that society encourages you to accept certain modes of living in the world without having to consider how they work and what they do. That’s how ideology appears natural, “just the way things are.” That’s what I want to encourage you to think about. If you’re skeptical that change from thinking that one’s own way is right just because it’s yours, hey, I have a television now. And that’s only one of the smaller revolutions in thinking I’ve undergone in my life.
What people call critical theory is the work of examining the world as it has been made to appear natural to us and examining how the world has come to be organized in that way—what motivations and investments in power led people to organize it as they do and who benefits and how from those accounts. I invite you to reflect on those things that seem normal and natural. Let’s make what seems obvious a question to ourselves, as I often like to invite students to do in class. Let’s ask how they have become normal and natural and what the effects of their naturalization have become, both at Wabash and in the world beyond Wabash. Let’s think about how what we consider natural might work to maintain social orders that leave some people out and makes it difficult for them to succeed in a way that blames them instead of the social order that we now consider natural, necessary, and obvious. #WabashAlwaysListens #WabashAlwaysThinks
 Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, London: Methuen, 1983, 189-200. Margaret L. King, Women of the Renaisssance (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991, 64-67).
 Marty Williams and Anne Echols, Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publications, 2000), 53.
 Rublack, Ulinka, “Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany.” Past & Present, no. 150 (1996): 84-110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/651238.