I am interested in questions of what appears to us as “natural” and what appears to be the product of human activity and influence. Denaturalizing what are in fact the effects of changeable human practices has long been a tool in many critical philosophies, used by thinkers to challenge the “naturalness” of a given economic and political system, of sexual and racial hierarchies, and the relationship among all these things. Alongside this useful critical operation, I am curious about other uses of the term “nature,” especially in contemporary environmental philosophy, and whether there is something valuable in still calling ourselves “natural.”
At a time when the effects of human activity on the environment have never been a more urgent question, my work proposes that looking anew at the concepts of nature and natural beauty in the works of Immanuel Kant and Theodor Adorno will help us better understand the relationship between human beings, nature, and human action today.
Figurations of Nature in Kant and Adorno proposes that ecological political action requires a nuanced account of nature that includes attention to its aesthetic significance. After drawing out the ethical and political consequences of the differing uses of the term “nature” in environmental philosophy, I argue that Kant and Adorno must be read as crucial interlocutors in this discussion. While securing the objectivity of the natural sciences through his transcendental account of the human subject, Kant attempts to preserve the alterity of nature by denying that our knowledge is of nature in-itself, and he further defends the aesthetic experience of natural beauty as a non-instrumental and non-conceptual mode of relating to nature. For Adorno, these compartmentalized experiences of nature—indeed all experiences of nature—reflect historical conditions.
While much of environmental philosophy continues to define nature in terms of its alterity to the human world, I propose that critically interpreting nature’s appearance—including its very construal as alterity—can better reveal the emancipatory and destructive elements inherent in our contemporary relationship to nature. Thus, I offer an account of the aesthetic experience of nature that 1) speaks to our current discussions of global climate change, where it is increasingly difficult to define nature as that which is independent of human activity, and 2) demands ethical and political responses to the effects of climate change and the unequal distribution thereof.
I am currently working to connect my research–to an extent grounded in continental philosophy–to the discipline of environmental aesthetics, which emerged out of the “analytic” tradition. To this end, I presented a paper at the APA-Eastern International Association for Environmental Philosophy panel that relates the Adornian conception of natural beauty to that of philosopher Ronald Hepburn, who effectively founded the discipline of environmental aesthetics. I also have a paper (currently under review) which suggests that attending to Adorno’s criticism of exclusively objective or subjective aesthetics–where the meaning of aesthetics lies solely in truth of the object or in the observer’s reactions, respectively–can help reorient contemporary environmental aesthetics towards the historicity of of nature and aesthetic experience itself.
I also have longstanding interests in the idea of freedom and the role of aesthetics in German Idealism, and in Kant in particular. My paper suggesting that Kant’s practical defense of human freedom serves as means of orienting oneself in action, “Faith and Freedom: Kant at the Boundary of Reason,” will be published in Akten des XIII. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses 2019. Also, I am now at work on a chapter for the Routledge Companion to History and Theory on how contingency and historical inevitability are taken up in Kant, Hegel, and the Frankfurt School, to come out March 2021.
My next major project will allow me to further pursue connections between conceptualizations of nature and feminist extensions of critical theory, especially in the emerging debates around social reproduction theory. The project, tentatively titled, “Nature and the Natural in Social Reproduction Theory,” will argue that foregrounding the analysis of capitalism’s need to reproduce life for the sake of labor power provides a more useful lens through which to discuss nature—and the cultural production of the natural—than the ecofeminist positions that instead emphasize critiques of speciesism. While denaturalizing historical processes is a major element of feminist, Marxist, and anti-racist critique, I plan to explore the normative resources inherent in the contradictions and failures of the social reproduction of life.