The Birth of 'Nature': A Critical Taxonomy of Meanings for a Troubled Time
AuthorRess, Jared Nathaniel
AdvisorNickles, Thomas J.
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Talk of various crises has filled the air during the beginning stages of the 21st century, to the point that it seems an appropriate time to reassess the modern outlook and the direction of modern civilization. This essay is an attempt at contributing to the philosophical groundwork that could ultimately produce new ways of thinking about how civilized life should be and how to address our problems. One way in which the abstract realm of philosophy intersects with concrete practical issues is in the discourse through which we convince one another to adopt policies, undertake projects, and other such things. `Nature' is a particularly important term within such discourse, primarily because so many of our crises have to do with our relation to the natural environment. It also relates in less obvious ways to the other end of the spectrum of crises, economic problems, especially insofar as these are involved in dilemmas of priority with environmental problems. Moreover, it represents a crucial concept for broader discussions of the aims and evaluation of civilization. Unfortunately, despite this very crucial role, `nature' happens to be a very complicated term with much deep philosophical content and many different senses. These characteristics, along with the ubiquity of its use render it a deceptively easy to understand term. Confusions between its different meanings and casual treatment of the difficult philosophical issues it can imply often render discourse and, indeed, the thinking behind it, vague and ineffectual. By retracing the etymology of `nature', considering philosophical trends concurrent with some of the changes it has undergone, and analyzing some of the philosophically loaded terms and concepts in lexicographers' definitions, this essay will attempt to create a sort of taxonomy of different meanings of `nature' that will help to avoid such confusions and facilitate clearer and more deeply thoughtful discourse regarding our most dire problems.