If nature is opposed to human society, then it can either be because nature is seen to be superior to society, or because it is inferior. In the mid-seventeenth century the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the condition into which society could collapse, not least through civil war, as a state of nature (1994). Hobbes’s state of nature is brutal and violent, and so the task of political philosophy is to describe the forms of government that will most effectively prevent the disintegration of society into nature. An alternative vision becomes clear, at the very end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, in the writings of the German philosophers Kant (1983) and Hegel (1948). Both of them offer accounts of human history, based on interpretations of the Book of Genesis, that begin with primitive humans (Adam and Eve, Noah and Abraham) having to be expelled from the security of nature, in order to be forced to develop their potential as human beings. Nature, be it the idyll of the Garden of Eden, or the nomadic Abraham merely following the wanderings of his ﬂock of sheep, poses no challenge to humans, and therefore no stimulus to the development of human self-understanding and reason. The dominant view of nature in science and political philosophy in
the seventeenth-century European Enlightenment is of nature as superior to society. It is a source of order and reason (which was displayed, not least, by Newtonian physics). Politically, the appeal to nature and natural order served as a challenge and criticism of contemporary society. Nature promised an alternative to the seemingly
arbitrary and even corrupt conventions that governed absolutist and feudal society. Thus, for example, the English philosopher John Locke appealed to the idea of a state of nature, but as a relatively benign condition existing prior to the formation of society (1980). In this state of nature, human beings enjoyed extensive freedoms (or natural rights). Such freedoms could easily be undermined or removed by the violent and selﬁsh actions of others, so society (in the form of government or the state) emerged as people banded together to protect each other. It was therefore the task of any rational and acceptable form of government to protect the natural freedoms of its citizens. Feudal government notably failed to do this. In the romanticism of the late eighteenth and nineteenth cen-
turies, this sense of a superior nature is modiﬁed. Society is now to learn from nature, and to renew itself through that study (rather than to be overthrown by an appeal to nature). The emphasis that the Enlightenment places on reason, and the rational order that it found in nature, is displaced by a concern with the diversity and fecundity of the organic. Nature becomes a source of spiritual values and emotion. It stands for that which is good and innocent. It is the world of the noble savage. This use is important, because it continues today, not least in the language used in advertising. It is the claim that the wheat from which your breakfast cereal is made is ‘natural’. Strictly the wheat is a product of human culture (or more precisely, agriculture). It is the product of hundreds of years of selective breeding. (Natural wheat would be a fairly unpalatable Ethiopian grass.) Closely associated nuances of meaning are found today in the use of ‘organic’. This ﬁnal twist of meaning in ‘nature’ is perhaps the use that is
most central to cultural studies, for it reveals much about the working of ideology. Ideology may be understood as sets of ideas and concepts that shape our understanding of the world, and crucially distort that understanding so that we do not challenge or question existing power relations. Nature plays a crucial role in ideology, for if social and cultural relations and events are perceived to be natural, then they will not be challenged. They will not appear to be the product of human agency and the exercise of political power, and to challenge them will appear no more rational or sensible than challenging the law of gravity or the fact that it is raining. The Hungarian philosopher Georg Luka´cs used the phrase ‘second nature’ to encapsulate this experience of society (1978). That which is the product of human action and invention (our society
and culture) and thus that which should be full of meaning and the indications of human intention, actually confronts us as something that is as alien and as meaningless as ﬁrst nature-real nature. The German Marxist philosopher T.W. Adorno summarised the challenge that this ideological inversion of nature and culture posed for a politically informed study of culture: ‘What cannot be changed in nature may be left to look after itself. When it can be changed, it is up to us to change it’ (Wiggershaus 1994:90). That is to say that the task of cultural theory may be to see through second nature, and so change what appears to be unchangeable.