Throughout the seventeenth century, many parts of Europe underwent a renewal in the field of science. Several philosophers during this time believed that it was necessary to create a new approach to science. To be more specific, a new approach to the methodology within the scientific field, because they believed that the previous ways of dealing with science were flawed and needed to change. This philosophical approach to science could be seen as a revolution looking back on it from today’s view.
Although naming this period as a “scientific revolution” is an inaccurate term to describe the work that these scientists and philosophers were doing during the seventeenth century, the term “Early Modern Science” is a more appropriate term to discuss the theories and discoveries behind the scientific practice. So what exactly was new with the approach these seventeenth-century thinkers had? In the New Organon (1620) written by Francis Bacon, in the section entitled the Great Renewal, he argues that humans but more specifically “men” have been involved in a relationship with nature that has had no benefits.
He says on page 6: “On the state of the sciences, that it is neither prosperous nor far advanced; and that a quite different way must be opened up for the human intellect than men have known in the past, and new aids devised, so that the mind may exercise its right over nature” (Bacon, The New Organon, 1620)
This quote from the preface of The New Organon His premise for doing so is mostly backed up by a justification that the human mind and reason “should exercise its right over nature”.
In other words, humans should exercise their right to conquer nature. This suggests that Bacon believes, humans but more specifically he says “men” should have the right, in a certain sense, to colonize nature in pursuit for knowledge.
In this essay, the main questions posed are: How has the conquest of nature evolved? And what role have humans played in the relationship with nature? I will do a comparative analysis using authors of the seventeenth century while also looking at more recent authors, who offer new theories about this relationship humans have with nature. Using textual examples from works of Francis Bacon, Margaret Cavendish, Val Plumwood and James Lovelock, I will discuss the theme of the conquest of nature.
The first part of my essay consists of analysis, using passages from The New Organon by Francis Bacon. I will elaborate on what sort of relationship that requires humans to have with nature from a Baconian perspective. Then, in the second part of my essay, I will use an opposite standpoint on this thesis and introduce an extract of the preface of A Blazing New World written by Margaret Cavendish. Using Cavendish’s work, I will connect some feminist theory and environmentalist perspective. Then finally in the third part of my essay, I will introduce ecofeminism as another perspective on the relationship between humans, but more specifically women and nature. Finally, I will conclude my essay and use the Gaia theory, a theory coined by James Lovelock and I will link his perspective as a new approach to nature in the scientific field.
As previously mentioned in the introduction, Bacon’s theory sums up the idea that humans should conquer nature in order to advance scientific research. He believed that by conquering nature, there would be a better understanding of it and of the mysteries within it. Thus we as humans would acquire more knowledge and arrive closer to a so-called “truth”. Yet why is conquering nature integral for discovering the truth? This approach to nature suggests a relationship of domination of our reason over nature. Bacon says on page 11:
“For ourselves, swayed by the eternal love of truth, we have committed ourselves to uncertain, rough and solitary ways, and relying and resisting God’s help, we have fortified our mind against violent attacks from the armed forces of opinion, and against our own internal hesitations and scruples, the dark mists and clouds and fantasies of things flying all around us; so that at the end we may be able to provide more reliable and secure directions for present and future generations.” (Bacon, The New Organon, 1620)
Here, he claims that human reason desires to learn more about nature and that the desire should be fulfilled by mastering nature. He also states his intentions for conquering nature as being beneficial for “present and future generations”. So he would like science to progress to a point where nature could be of service to us humans. Bacon’s attitude towards scientific progress is not just restricted to the mastery of nature but he also enlarges his argument, to benefit humanity as a whole. What he is not saying in this passage is that we should completely take over nature and ignore what it can do for us, but rather he says that we should use nature as a tool for our acquiring more knowledge and for the pursuit of “truth”. This is indeed a very revolutionary claim to make in his time period, considering that Christianity was omnipresent. For a long time, the Christian doctrine was used for giving explanations on how nature and the world around us functioned. And because the church a large amount of power, it was quite risky to go against this system of reasoning. In some ways, Bacon’s theory is going against the Christian dogma because Christian dogma dictates that everything was placed on the earth for a reason and that reason was God. However, in this text, Bacon never actually goes against Christianity and instead uses religion as a means to support his arguments. Therefore, Bacon’s theory encompasses a relationship of hierarchy between God, humans, and nature.
In addition to the development of the conquest of nature, there have been many scientific advancements and discoveries that indeed have benefited humanity as a whole. Medicine, for instance, would not have been possible without this concept of conquering nature, because Bacon’s approach was founded on the premise of mastering nature through science. We’ve seen that Bacon has been able to transform our relationship to nature and make our lives as humans more convenient. However, what we have not taken into consideration are the side effects dominating nature would have over the environment as a whole. So, a question we can now pose concerning the manipulation of nature is: is that the Baconian approach to nature really what is necessary to sustain the future of humanity? If humans were to have a completely different approach to nature where humans did not need to manipulate nature in order to gain truth, would the outcome be different?
A female writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish was specifically known for criticizing the scientific approach to nature of that time. She even highlighted the fact that within the writings of these philosophers there was not only a gender gap within the scientific discourse but also a lack of consideration for a perspective of the environment or nature itself. She argued in her work entitled A Blazing New World that:
“what Man knows, whether Fish do not Know more of the nature of Water, and ebbing and flowing, and the saltiness of the Sea? or whether Birds do not know more of the nature and degrees of Air, or the cause of Tempests? or whether Worms do not know more of the nature of Earth, and how Plants are produced? or Bees of the several sorts of juices of Flowers, then Men? And whether they do not make there Aphorisms and Theorems by their manner of Intelligence? For, though they have not the speech of Man, yet thence doth not follow, that they have no Intelligence at all” (Cavendish, A Blazing New World 1666)
Here, Cavendish states that imposing our consciousness on to things we are not able to understand does not necessarily deepen our understanding of the things themselves but more on how we perceive what we think they are. Moreover, Cavendish argues that the experiences these animals are having, possibly have a deeper understanding of how nature works, simply because their experience of nature depends on certain experiences us humans could never have. Thus her augment takes a completely new perspective on the experience animals to have with nature. She considers their experience perhaps to not be less “true” or less intelligent than our experience as humans but instead, she sees their interaction with nature as specific to the being itself. This means that the experience of nature is entirely subjective to the being itself, it would perhaps never reach the consciousness of humans, simply because we will not be able to adopt this perspective. This concept of misperceiving this for what they actually are is something Margaret Cavendish argues in her book A Blazing New World (1666). In the preface of her book entitled Observations on experimental philosophy, she argues that our human desire to gain knowledge might actually be more flawed. On page 13 & 14 Cavendish writes:
“for nature is not a deity, but her parts are often irregular: and how is it possible that one particular creature can know all the obscure and hidden infinite varieties of nature? if the truth of nature were so easily known, we had no need to take so many pains in searching after it; but nature being material, and consequently divisible, her parts have but divided knowledge and none can claim a universal infinite knowledge. Nevertheless, although I may err in my arguments, or for want of artificial terms; yet I believe the ground of my opinion is true because it is sense and reason.” (Cavendish, A Blazing New World, 1666)
In this passage, Cavendish defends the position of humans navigating the complexities of nature by positioning her self against Baconian philosophy. Instead of saying that we should use our reason to dominate nature and better understand it, she instead says that it is possible to never have a full understanding of it “because no one can claim infinite knowledge”. However, it is still possible to attempt to understand nature as much as one can but it will never fully be as objective and truthful as one desires it to be simply because we are limited to our experience as human beings. For example, in a passage of A Blazing New World she argues that when a scientist looks at something through a microscope, they are able to see the object in a more enlarged manner and thus get a more detailed perspective. On the contrary what the person looking through the microscope does not get a deeper understanding of the thing itself, and instead get She suggests that we don’t become separate from nature nor do we choose to dominate and exercise our reason over nature, but instead gets a perspective from the microscope. To put it simply, Cavendish states that us humans should learn as much as we can from nature and be more in harmony with it. Thus she introduces a new relationship humans and also women can have with nature and that perspective is that of unison between nature and humans.
Moving forward with this analysis on the conquest of nature, something that hasn’t yet been discussed is the role of women in science. Although Cavendish’s work would not be classified as radical feminist philosophy in comparison to the works of Kimberl? Crenshaw for example, it was at the time beginning the discourse of women in the field of science. She could be considered to be one of the writers to bring forth some ideas of what is today called Ecofeminism. Ecofeminism a term used to describe a feminist approach to understanding ecology. Ecofeminist thinkers draw on the concept of gender to theorize on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Val Plumwood in her book entitled Feminism and the mastery of nature talks about this relationship. She says in the introduction, on page 7:
“The story of a land where women live at peace with themselves and with the natural world is a recurrent theme of feminist utopias. This is a land where there is no hierarchy, among humans or between humans and animals, where people care for one another and for nature, where the earth and the forest retain their mystery, power, and wholeness, where the power of technology and of military and economic force does not rule the earth, or at least that part of it controlled by women. For usually this state is seen as a beleaguered one, surviving against the hostile intent of men, who control a world of power and inequality, of military and technological might and screaming poverty, where power is the game and power means domination of both nature and people. Feminist vision often draws the contrasts starkly it is life versus death, Gaia versus Mars, mysterious forest versus technological desert, women versus men.” (Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of nature, 1993)
Plumwood starts off with imagining a utopian world in which women live in harmony with nature and all its beings. She hopes for a world in which “technology and of military and economic force does not rule the earth”. These examples of technological, economic and military forces are means which are generally dominated by masculine perspectives because it implies a power relationship between a stronger entity taking over a weaker one. She criticizes this dualist perspective and instead puts forth a point of view in which women and be more involved in the debate of environmental issues.
“One essential feature of all ecological feminist positions is that they give positive value to a connection of women with nature which was previously, in the west, given negative cultural value and which was the main ground of women’s devaluation and oppression. Ecological feminists are involved in a great cultural revaluation of the status of women, the feminine and the natural, a revaluation which must recognize the way in which their historical connection in western culture has influenced the construction of feminine identity and, as I shall try to show, of both masculine and human identity.” (Plumwood, Feminism and the mastery of nature, 1993)
To summarize this essay, using the quote from Plumwood, one is able to see that ecofeminism is a perhaps a more inclusive approach to the relationship humans have with nature. The fact that it has taken several centuries to realize that masculine discourse had been predominantly taking over the way in which humans relate to nature and almost ignored the possibility of having a more diverse vision or even approach to nature, is quite surprising. Women have not only had to fight to include their perspectives and experiences with nature into the scientific world, but they have also had to create a space in which nature could have a stance for itself. On this note perhaps what we as humans could best do in our relationship to nature is actually stop intervening in nature like Bacon had previously thought and instead allow nature to teach us what we can do. Using a more holistic approach to nature versus a domineering of human reason over nature leaves more room for coexistence and harmony between all beings. Furthermore, it would be interesting to remove the human perspective to the understanding of nature and instead consider nature as a self-sustaining and self-regulating organism that does not need human intervention in order to do exist. This is something that James Lovelock opens up in his work of the Gaia Theory.