Natural (versus artificial)

As Marta Fehér states, Greek philosophers deprecated the crafts and their products. A higher value was ascribed to what was produced by nature, while ‘artificial’ meant something dead and, in general, inferior to natural things. For Plato all artefacts (including pieces of art) were imitations of something natural, of ideas (in fact imitations of imitations), conceptions that we can find well reflected in his myth of the cave. For Aristotle natural and artificial had nothing in common because both formed two different spheres of reality, the artificial was not a copy of something natural already existent but something new. This Aristotelian natural/artificial dichotomy was finally destroyed in the 17th century (mainly by F. Bacon and Descartes) and prejudices against the mechanical arts started to disappear; the artificial sphere became a model for understanding nature. (Marta Féher, “The natural and the artificial: (an attempt at conceptual clarification)”, Periodica Polytechnica Social and Management Sciences, 1993, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 67-76)

Some years before Fehér, Paolo Rossi pointed out that present conceptions denying basic differences between art products and natural products contradict dominant assumptions maintained in the classic Greek culture. Aristotelianism and hippocratic medicine contemplated nature as an ideal and a rule for art to achieve its purposes. Frequent parallelisms between art and nature in Aristotelian texts are intended then to make easier the understanding of the less familiar (nature) by the more accessible practices (art). Later on, in the medieval period, art was associated with the concept of imitatio naturae. As in ancient times, every attempt to reach perfection, represented by nature, was regarded in those years as a sign of impiety and temerity. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1141), a leading theologian, considered mechanical arts as adulterinae precisely because they borrow their modes from nature. As it was mentioned before, from the Renaissance on these distances and reserves were gradually dissolved, Francis Bacon being one of the most active contributors to this revisionist perspective (P. Rossi, I Filosofi i le Macchine, 1400-1700, 1962) (for consequences in the representations of human beings and minds, see on the blog “human automaton”). Nevertheless, in recent times we still identify “natural” with properties that make a product superior to any type of manufactured or manipulated good.  This is particularly noticeable in arguments supported by homeopathic treatments practitioners or in pronouncements against genetically modified food.

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and William R. Newman, editors of the book The Artificial and the Natural. An Evolving Polarity (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2007, 2-3), present the dichotomy as an open question that demands a cultural approach (because the concept of nature not only has physical connotations, but moral and social ones as well):

 As Roald Hoffman pointed out in The Same and Not the Same, the “rational” arguments used by modern chemists in order to fight the popular prejudice against chemicals are largely useless, because they ignore the cultural aspects of the issue. The concept of nature functions and has always been used as a cultural value, a social norm, and a moral authority. Debates over art and nature generally conceal the broad questions that undergo and drive them: is techne a continuation of nature’s activity (tools being viewed as something like the prolongation of a person’s hand), a rebellion against nature, or a challenge to nature? The nature of technology and its legitimacy, the situation of humans as technicians among other animals, and the status of artisans in society are among the broad issues at stake. Because of the importance of such philosophical implications and cultural roots in all the debates over the impact of technologies, we cannot simply dismiss the distinction between art and nature as a “popular prejudice” or as an “irrational nostalgia for the past”.


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