Abstract and Concrete Nature: “Limits to Nature” as Historical-Ideological Limits to Our Understanding of Nature

Arjun Sengupta


In this paper, I argue that Marxism is the only philosophical outlook that consistently views nature as concrete or qualitatively infinite. I further argue that such a view is fundamental to any adequate understanding of both environmental problems and the contradictions of class. I do this in the following way.

First, relying on the Hegelian tradition within Marxist theorization, particularly the Grundrisse and the works of the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov, I try to show that what fundamentally sets apart Marxist philosophy from most other philosophical traditions is the former’s view that the sensuous world – the world that is given to us in sensation – is characterized by universal and infinite causal linkages. In other words, Marxism is unique in consistently looking at the sensuous world or nature as qualitatively infinite or concrete. I further argue that this view is fundamentally connected to the fact that Marxism accords a central place to sensuous or sense-directed activity in understanding the basic epistemic relation. Since human activity is both sense-directed and qualitatively determinate, the sensuous world which directs such activity must itself be qualitatively determinate or concrete. I argue that a recognition of this condition of possibility of sensuous activity forms the core of Marxist epistemology.

I then show that most non-Marxist philosophical traditions (both “western” and “eastern”), because they do not attach much significance to sensuous activity in understanding the epistemic relation, conceive the sensuous or natural world in purely quantitative or abstract terms. I show that this includes even professedly practice-oriented philosophical traditions such as pragmatism. I then argue that to conceive of nature as pure quantity is to fundamentally preclude an understanding of it as infinite. This is so, as I show, because the categories of finitude and infinitude cease to meaningfully apply when quality or qualitative relations are removed from the picture. I then argue that such a view forms the foundation of the dualist conception of nature, on the one hand, as “limited”, and history or culture, on the other, as fundamentally “illimitable”.

Third, relying on commentators such as Benjamin Farrington and Debiprasad Chattopadhyay, I argue that the philosophical view of nature as purely quantitative stems from the basic division between mental and physical labour that definitionally characterizes class societies. I show that the practical-historical separation between mental and physical labour necessarily requires a corresponding ideological separation between quantity and quality. The practical split within the historical subject expresses itself as the ideological split within the historical object. I then show that this abstract conception of nature pervades contemporary social theory as well – from neo-classical economics to certain strands of political ecology.

Fourthly, I argue that the view of nature as purely quantitative prevents comprehension of the basic contradiction of human practice – that it fundamentally involves finite transformation of an infinite nature. Finite transformation of an infinite world implies that no matter what the level of historical development of practice it is always, and necessarily, limited and partial – that is to say it always excludes or fails to reckon with certain properties and relations of the world which in turn show up as problems of practice. Practice is, necessarily, therefore, both problem-solving and problem-yielding.

I then argue that this contradiction – between finite practice and infinite nature – lies at the very core of the Marxist understanding of the historical process. I show that what, traditionally, have been referred to as the “relations of production” are but the form within which the contradiction between finitude and infinitude plays out. Further, I show that any meaningful comprehension of environmental problems as practical problems – that is, as both created by practice and posing a challenge to it – requires us to locate them within the specific trajectories of development of this historical dialectic.

Marxism - Nature - Society-Nature relations - Ecology