Materialism, Practice, and "Nature"

Steven Vogel


I will argue that the "activist" or practice-oriented materialism that Marx sketched out in his early work (especially the Theses on Feuerbach) is useful for thinking about environmental problems and environmental philosophy today, not least because it points to the importance of an environmental theory oriented towards the built environment, which is the one we actually inhabit, rather than "nature" understood as a world that humans have not built. The prevailing idea that "nature" = "environment" is symptomatic, I will argue, of a social/economic order marked by something like commodity fetishism, which treats exchange-values as natural facts and thus fails to recognize the role of socially organized labor in (literally!) "constructing" the objects that surround us. I offer a dialectical typology of modes of thinking about "nature," from 1) the traditional dominative view of nature as meaningless matter available to humans for their manipulation and domination, to 2) the radical nature-centered environmentalism that views humans as part of nature and subject to its dictates, to 3) the postmodernist claim that nature is always a human concept and so is "socially constructed," to 4) the "New Materialism" of people such as Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour, who reject social constructionism and instead insist on the reality as well as the inherent vitality and even agency of matter. I argue that the first and third of these are essentially idealist views, whereas the second and fourth are materialist ones, but that none satisfactorily grasp Marx's notion that humans are materially active in the world – meaning that they construct it socially, but they do so literally, through their labor. I criticize "New Materialism" specifically on this point, arguing that a real activist materialism insists not on the agency of matter (the idea of which anthropocentrically extends human characteristics to the entire world) but rather on the materiality of agency, which is to say it sees the (natural!) human relation to the world to be an active one.

Environmental Crisis - Nature - materialism