Nineteenth Century Philosophy
Many nineteenth-century philosophers – including G. W. F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche – held views about nature and animals which are relevant to, and sometimes anticipate, environmental ethics. Their views reflect broader developments in nineteenth-century philosophy.
Until the 1840s, idealism – in the forms developed by the Germans J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. Schelling, and Hegel – was the dominant outlook. Central to German idealism was the belief that human beings are free, taking freedom (or autonomy) to be the ability to act and think independently of causal determination. From the 1840s onwards a range of more naturalist philosophical approaches became dominant. According to these approaches human beings are natural, part of the natural universe understood as a causal order. The later nineteenth century saw a resurgence of idealism, with many philosophers combining elements from idealism and materialism. Both German idealism and naturalism have mixed implications for environmental ethics.
German idealism and nature (1): Fichte and Schelling
idealism developed out of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. The German idealists
endorsed Kant’s view that human beings are autonomous, capable of breaking from
causal determination to
determine their own
values and thoughts. But Kant held that human beings are not only autonomous
but also appear empirically – i.e. in everyday experience – to be
part of nature, understood as the fully determined causal order of Newtonian
on these Kantian views, Fichte held that the self’s freedom conflicts with its
empirical status as a natural
body whose sensations are causally determined. This conflict
prompts the self to strive to overcome its determination by nature so as to
become completely free. The self therefore endlessly strives to dominate and
impose its will on nature (see The Vocation of Man, 1800). The
more the self succeeds in ‘determining’ or shaping the character of nature
through its activities, the more the self, in being determined by nature,
actually remains self-determined after all. Fichte’s FORMER follower Schelling
reacted against Fichte’s insistence on the conflict between self and nature.
Schelling argues that human freedom is only possible if it emerges out of and
depends on a pre-existing form of freedom within nature. In his First
Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799) he maintains
that nature is free in the sense that it originally consists in a pure ‘productivity’
or creativity which fixes itself in a succession of particular natural objects.
devised his account
s of nature partly through a
reasoning about what nature must be like for human freedom to be possible, and
partly by drawing together the results of the empirical sciences of his time
(e.g., contemporary chemistry which seemed to reveal creative,
self-transforming energies in nature). Naturphilosophie
‘Philosophy of nature’ – was what Schelling called his part-speculative,
part-empirical form of inquiry into nature, which became popular among st
early nineteenth-century scientists (leading to some real discoveries, e.g. of
electromagnetism). Although mid-century scientific materialists repudiated Naturphilosophie, insisting
that scientific inquiry must be purely empirical, Naturphilosophie influenced
forerunners of ecology such as Ernst Haeckel.
Outside Germany contemporary environmental philosophers have seldom discussed Schelling. Yet he anticipates environmental ethics with his rejection of Fichte’s advocacy of human domination over nature, his contrasting emphasis that human freedom depends on the freedom of nature, and his replacement of mechanistic views of nature with an idea of nature as a creative whole.
German idealism and nature (2): Hegel
Hegel’s position on nature lies midway between those of Fichte and Schelling. In his Philosophy of Nature (1830), Hegel sees nature as rational rather than creative. For Hegel the natural world is rational not only in being intelligible to us, but also in that natural things in themselves form a rational order in which some things resolve internal conflicts within others. Like Schelling, Hegel reached his conclusions about nature on a partly a priori and partly empirical basis. Also like Schelling, Hegel insists that human rationality depends on the rationality of nature, and he sees nature as not a mechanism but a rational whole.
However, Hegel thinks that the rationality of nature is inferior to that of humanity – because nature is mind that is ‘outside itself,’ i.e. not self-conscious. As a result, Hegel argues in his political philosophy that human beings should appropriate and impose their will on natural things, so that these things will come to reflect the higher, more fully developed, kind of rationality that human beings possess. To this extent Hegel, like Fichte, provides a philosophical justification for human mastery over nature.
We see, then, that German idealism can be developed so as either (1) to support the domination of unfree nature by free humanity (Fichte), or (2) to treat human freedom as depending on and requiring that of nature (Schelling), or (3) to combine (1) and (2) by reinterpreting nature’s freedom as rationality and seeing it as an inferior version of human rationality (Hegel).
John Stuart Mill on animals and nature
mid-nineteenth-century German idealism was supplanted by a variety of naturalist philosophical approaches, including
scientific materialism, which treated the natural universe as a vast godless
mechanism, and positivism [ I WAS
UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT POSITIVISM WAS A 20TH-CENTURY MOVEMENT—JBC [rf1] ],
which took science rather than metaphysics to be the paradigm of knowledge. The
most important of these naturalist philosophers is John Stuart Mill. For Mill
humans are part of nature, sentient creatures who desire pleasure and shun
pain, and ethics must be based on these facts.
Mill, then, develops Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. According to Bentham’s well-known axiom an action is right if it increases the overall amount of happiness or pleasure. Because non-human animals can suffer even if they cannot talk or reason, Bentham held that the pleasures and pains of animals should be factored in when calculating the utility of actions and laws. Mill defended Bentham’s position on animals against William Whewell’s objection that it meant – absurdly to Whewell’s mind – that human happiness would sometimes have to be sacrificed for the greater pleasure of animals. Regarding Whewell’s objection as little more than a selfish prejudice, Mill replies that an action or institution just is wrong if it ‘causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man’ (Mill 1852, p. 187).
Mill’s opposition to cruelty to animals illustrates, he advocated
reconstructing society and laws on a rational, utilitarian, basis. He therefore
argued in his essay ‘Nature’ (1874) against conservative appeals for people to
act ‘according to nature.’ For Mill these appeals merely sanctify the status
which appears ‘natural’ because of its longevity. To refute these conservative
two main senses of the term nature. 1. Contrasted to the
‘supernatural,’ nature means ‘all the powers
existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes
place by means of those powers’ (‘Nature’, p. 6) or in short ‘all facts actual
and possible’ (p. 5). 2. Contrasted to the ‘artificial,’ nature means
whatever exists or happens ‘without the voluntary and intentional agency of
man’ (p. 6). In neither sense is nature a moral standard: under sense 1 we
cannot not act according to nature, while under sense 2 we cannot avoid acting
More dubiously, Mill also argues in ‘Nature’ that we positively ought to act against nature (in sense 2) – to transform and improve it – because nature is wantonly destructive. He speaks as if nature deliberately acted wrongfully in inflicting hurricanes, diseases, and other ills upon humanity. This contradicts both Mill’s denial that nature exercises intentional agency and his advice that we should not personify nature. Nonetheless, Mill does have valid utilitarian grounds for recommending that we should transform and improve nature. For Mill, we should do so in order to increase the happiness of humans and other sentient creatures, where natural things (non-human animals excepted) do not themselves merit moral consideration because they are not sentient.
Nietzsche and naturalism
The nineteenth-century philosopher most often discussed by contemporary environmental thinkers is Nietzsche. His philosophical outlook is largely naturalistic. He rejects traditional Christianity’s devaluation of the natural world in favour of the ‘beyond’ and its devaluation of human bodies and instincts in favour of the soul. Summing up this rejection, Nietzsche advocates ‘loyalty to the earth’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885). His this-worldly orientation has commended him to some environmental ethicists.
this-worldly orientation includes an insistence that human beings are an animal
, evolved from apes [AU: FROM AN EVOLUTIONARY POINT OF VIEW, HOMO
SAPIENS *IS* ONE OF FIVE EXTANT SPECIES OF GREAT APE, ALL OF WHICH ARE EVOLVED
FROM A COMMON ANCESTOR. OF COURSE NIETZSCHE MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN THAT. PLEASE
MAKE ENTIRELY CLEAR.] For Nietzsche ,
not stand at the apex of the evolutionary chain nor are
in kind from or
superior to other animals. These claims
– and Nietzsche’s copious use of animal imagery – have made his
work of interest to animal ethicists. [AU: PLEASE ADD A BIT ON DARWIN AND
Nietzsche and animality
It falls to
Nietzsche to give a naturalist explanation for the features that might appear
human beings from
(other) animals, especially humanity’s level of moral conscience, culture and
self-awareness. Nietzsche explains these features by constructing (in his On
of Morality, 1887) a history of how conflicts between human groups,
urbanisation and religion have inhibited human beings from discharging their
aggressive, destructive instincts – which they share with beasts of prey
– outward in violence to others. Instead we humans have learnt to turn
our aggression in onto ourselves, including by judging, reflecting upon and
cultivating ourselves. Thus, for Nietzsche, civilization results from human
beings having turned some of their aggressive energies against the rest of
those energies. This process has left our conformist instincts – which we
share with herd animals – free to become dominant within us.
Nietzsche does not want us to regain the uninhibited cruelty of beasts of prey. Instead he thinks that we should turn our acquired capacity for cruelty to ourselves against our ingrained moralism and conscientiousness. This would transform (a select, sufficiently ‘strong’ few of) us from ‘camels,’ burdened with acquired self-cruelty and domesticity, into ‘lions,’ at war on our own moral habits, and finally into ‘children,’ liberated from morality to create new values playfully (see Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pp. 54–56).
As Nietzsche’s parable of the camel-lion-child metamorphosis shows, he values beasts of prey – eagles, serpents, lions – over domesticated and herd animals – lambs, cows, camels. Here Nietzsche seems to rely on traditional stereotypes which associate each animal species with a particular human quality – e.g., eagles and pride, serpents and wisdom, lions and courage. Perhaps, then, Nietzsche’s real interest is not in non-human animals as such but in promoting pride, wisdom, and courage in humans and in rooting out humanity’s ingrained meekness, conformity and resignation.
though, Nietzsche thinks that animal species have evolved and adapted so as to
acquire particular characteristics, so that when we display (e.g.) wisdom we
really are adopting a serpentine way of being. Even so, Nietzsche’s
focus is still on liberating our own animal
nature, not non-human animals. [AU: THE EDITOR DOES NOT FOLLOW
THE PRECEEDING SENTENCE.] Indeed, he tends to condemn compassion
for animals on the grounds that this attitude bespeaks a person too
domesticated and enervated to endure any cruelty. He associates compassion for
animals with Arthur Schopenhauer, who greatly
influenced Nietzsche but against whom he reacted. Whereas for
Schopenhauer all life is
suffering and we ought to relieve suffering, including that of animals, where
possible, for Nietzsche we must affirm and embrace the suffering that life
entails, including by not flinching from our own cruelty . [AU: AT THE RISK OF RUNNING
THIS ARTICLE TOO MUCH FURTHER OVER WORD-ALLOCATION QUOTA, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE A
SECTION ON SCHOPENHAUER, WHO WAS THE PRIMARY INFLUENCE ON ALBERT SCHWEITZER'S
20TH-CENTURY REVERENCE-FOR-LIFE ENVIRONMENTAL ETHIC, AN ANTICIPATION OF PAUL W.
Nietzsche and nature
Nietzsche was largely but not entirely a naturalist. The account of the natural world as a system of interacting forces which he sketches in his posthumously published notebooks The Will to Power has idealist aspects, reflecting the late nineteenth-century trend to combine naturalism and idealism. According to this account all things are essentially ‘will-to-power,’ i.e. they consist of plural forces, each striving to dominate and harness the others. For instance, human beings are composed of various drives or instincts, including aggressive and conformist ones. Nietzsche maintains that each force interprets the world in relation to its goal, and that each force continually adapts and reinterprets its goal in order to harness other forces to it. He thus regards forces as self-determining and as having some kind of intentionality.
It has been claimed that Nietzsche’s idea of the world as will-to-power anticipates ecological ideas of nature as a living process or self-regulating system. Yet Nietzsche does not suggest that we should respect natural things qua self-determining. Since for him everything is will-to-power, we humans can do nothing other than pursue enhanced power for (some of) our instincts, which will often require harnessing and dominating other natural things.
NIETZSCHE'S WILL-TO-POWER CAN HARDLY BE POSSIBLE TO COMPREHEND WITHOUT
REFERENCE TO SCHOPENHAUER'S VOLUNTARISM. THE EDITORS ASK THAT THE AUTHOR ADD A
500-WORD SECTION ON SCHOPENAHAUER, WHO ALSO HAD A VERY STRONG BIOLOGICAL
INTEREST AND DIMENSION.]
Let us review the mixed implications that idealism and naturalism have for environmental ethics. Some idealists such as Schelling argue that nature is autonomous and therefore should not be dominated. But because for idealists it is autonomy that confers value on natural things, idealists readily slide back to reasserting the superior worth of human beings, whose autonomy is more apparent or highly developed. On the other hand, more naturalistic philosophers such as Mill and Nietzsche place humanity back within nature, as an animal species, and so they tend to reject or at least qualify assertions of human superiority over other animals. Yet these latter philosophers tend also to think that human beings should not scruple to transform nature in their own interests – whether because nature lacks the sentience that is the criterion of moral standing (Mill) or because we should embrace the tyrannical pursuit of power that is essential to all things (Nietzsche).
Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy
Lancaster University, United Kingdom
Fichte, J. G. 1800. The Vocation of Man. Trans. by Peter Preuss. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
Hegel, G. W. F. 1830. Philosophy of Nature, 3rd ed. Trans. by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.
Mill, John Stuart. 1852. Whewell on Moral Philosophy. In Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. X. Ed. by J. M. Robson. London: Routledge, 1969.
Mill, John Stuart. 1874. Nature. In Nature and Utility of Religion. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1883–1885. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1887. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans. by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1901. The Will to Power. Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1967.
Schelling, F. W. J. 1799. First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Trans. by Keith R. Peterson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
[rf1]No; cf. Comte.