TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Theses on Critical Theory and Contemporary Naturalism

For a New Naturalism, edited by Arran Gare and Wayne Hudson, is now available from Telos Press in our online store. Order your copy today and save 20% on the list price by using the coupon code BOOKS20 during the checkout process.


Contemporary political and social theory needs to be rethought with reference to posthistorical conditions and developments in the natural sciences. More emphasis needs to be placed on a wider naturalism that goes beyond modern objectivating naturalism: a naturalism that opens up to both differential naturalisms and to differential humanities. In place of critique without concrete alternatives and American identity politics, a version of enlightenment is needed that stands for the rational reform of human affairs in all areas. This enlightenment is not the mainstream European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It is not hostile to indigenous and premodern social traditions, but seeks to learn from them. Nor is it confined to Western social thought or to a political thought based on the citizens of cities. This enlightenment engages with the sciences and with global historical dynamics. It is not a version of modern social utopianism that largely ignores the universe. This enlightenment is critical of Western modernism. It is neither reheated German Idealism nor a version of aristocratic anti-liberalism. On the contrary, it extends certain of the central utopias of liberalism in a progressive direction. Hence it cannot be easily categorized. Loyal to both Marx and Edmund Burke and building on Zhu Xi and Khomyakov as well as John Dewey, it incorporates insights from Chinese, Russian, Indian, and African historical experience. In the same way, it is postcapitalist, but sympathetic to scientific economics and analytical philosophy in domains in which they have purchase, not social Romanticism or philosophical uplift.


The decline of Critical Theory after Adorno has encouraged forms of leftism that do not address the reform of capitalism and its political and economic institutions. Critical Theory, however, can be effectively renewed by resort to global historical dynamics and by replacing Western agnosticism about the good with an axiological account of human flourishing grounded in the contemporary sciences. This agenda goes to the question of whether Critical Theory can be rationally grounded and offers an advance beyond both emphatic reason without rational cosmology to sustain it and the retreat from enlightenment in Horkheimer and Adorno.


Critical Theory informed by contemporary and not seventeenth-century naturalism will not simply baptize the modern natural sciences. It will rationally evaluate them, as Horkheimer and Adorno notoriously failed to do, especially at a detailed and technical level. Critical Theory cannot take physicalism or multiverses as simply established. It must probe their claims to coherence. Similarly, and over a larger terrain, some of the mechanism and reductionism that characterized most twentieth-century science can now be challenged to some extent on both philosophical and scientific grounds. Evidence for this can be found in our recent volume For a New Naturalism (Telos Press Publishing, 2017). It is also available at much greater length, and with extensive scientific references, in the recent issues of the online journal Cosmos and History. New concepts of nature, based on current and not nineteenth-century science, are required to overcome the nihilism of the cultures of modernity and to underpin the construction of more egalitarian and just societies.


Mainstream science is committed to a notion of objectivity that excludes all forms of subjectivity, even though subjectivity is now admitted to characterize the living world fairly generally. Effectively, as Robert Rosen has pointed out, it is committed to explaining life away as mere appearance. Explaining away the reality of life leads to an inability to account for the reality of meaning and values, and this nihilism is now undermining Western civilization. Recent developments in the sciences, however, make it possible to explore the nature we actually experience. For example, a combination of hierarchy theory with Rosen’s work on biomathematics is being used to advance biosemiotics, recognizing that, as Jakob von Uexküll argued, organisms are defining and interpreting their environments as worlds, and can only be understood as agents responding to their worlds as these are experienced and interpreted.


The culture of modernity has been characterized by at least two competing conceptions of humans, one going back to Hobbes that strives to comprehend humans from a mechanistic perspective, and one inspired by Renaissance humanism, Vico, and Herder that sees humans as creating themselves through their history. The first view has decisively shaped Anglo-Saxon economics but is now partially undermined by developments in physics and biology going beyond the mechanistic view of nature, notably, non-linear thermodynamics and quantum field theory. Related developments, now revolutionizing biology, provide support for a conception of humans as essentially social beings formed by, and able to reform, their cultures and their contexts. This conception of humans underpins institutionalist economics according to which humans are not self-contained egoists but behave according to the institutions in which they are situated, institutions that have evolved through history and which they are capable of transforming.


The new naturalism will be neither reductionist nor positivist. It will not be a form of scientism but should be informed by the philosophies of freedom developed by Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel and by aspects of the work of C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead. This naturalism will exclude the dualisms of cultural supernaturalism and carry forward the ideals of the European Enlightenment. It will emphasize the need for a thorough critique of historical forms of religion, but it will not be hostile to post-secular perspectives on human spiritual evolution. Indeed, in the longer term it may have to consider the horizon of a global philosophical religion of the kind envisaged by the German philosopher Schelling: a philosophical religion transcending the parochialism and divisiveness of the particular religions and proving forms of ethical orientation for future sentient life.


A naturalism that involves new ideas about nature, and of our place within it, makes possible a philosophical anthropology, informed by contemporary science and able to respond to advanced technologies. This anthropology, in turn, can ground ecological social and economic thought that addresses the real lives of human beings and so offer an alternative to both the increasingly beleaguered discipline of sociology and to Anglo-Saxon economics. In the same way, an ecological jurisprudence may be developed that envisages a form of natural law grounded in human history, as argued by Ernst Bloch and Mark Modak-Truran among others, a jurisprudence that attends to formative effects, as Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence currently often fails to do.


Social and economic thought that is integrated with renewed philosophical anthropology will facilitate work for a global ecological civilization allied to the specific sociocultural trajectories of India, China, the Russian Federation, and Africa. This means challenging and transforming the political, social, and economic institutions of the Anglosphere, while generalizing and correcting the advances made by the European Enlightenment. This is a controversial agenda, but one that deserves to be widely discussed.

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