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Humanism and Nature

Humanism and Nature
John O’Neill

Those who aim to construct links between Marxism and the
green movement often look to Marx’ s early work on alienation as a source for a green Marxism. I There is an immediate
apparent problem with any such attempt to marry the early
Marx and the greens, viz. that Marx’s early works are
humanist. Doesn’t humanism necessarily entail that only
humans, their states and achievements, have value? And
isn’t this immediately incompatible with modern green
thought which allows that non-humans, their states and
achievements, also have intrinsic value?2 This argument as
it stands is too hasty. The term ‘humanism’ is an ambiguous
one and it need not immediately entail that only the states
and achievements of humans have value. Humanism can
have other meanings.

Consider Maritain’ s characterisation of humanism: ‘Humanism … essentially tends to render man more trul y human
and to make his original greatness manifest by causing him
to participate in all that can enrich him in nature and
history.’ 3 Maritain presupposes in this passage an Aristotelian account of humanism: a humanist is one who holds that
there is a human essence, a set of characteristic capacities
and activities, in terms of which one can grasp what it is for
humans to flourish; the practical goal of the humanist is to
foster human flourishing. This Aristotelian view of humanism is also that presupposed by Marx in his’ early works.

Humanism in this sense need not commit one to the anthropocentric view that only human states and achievements
have value. Maritain does not contradict this Aristotelian
starting point in defending a ‘theocentric humanism’ according to which human flourishing consists in being brought
closer to a non-human being of a higher value, God. He goes
on to contrast this position with what he describes as Marx’ s
‘anthropocentric humanism’.4 Quite clearly Marx would
reject any theocentric version of humanism. However, it
does not follow immediately, as Maritain assumes, that his
position is anthropocentric. There is a third possible position that Maritain fails to consider which one might call
‘biocentric humanism’ – that is, the view that the good life
for humans involves amongst other things a recognition of
the value of non-human beings in the natural world and a
concern with the promotion of their well-being. 5
Does Marx defend a purely anthropocentric humanism

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

or is his early position compatible with biocentric humanism? Does he assume that in characterising the flourishing
life for humans, the only objects of intrinsic value to which
we need to refer are the states and achievements of humans
themselves? I believe it is hard to find an unequivocal
answer to these questions. However, there are features of
his early work that suggest that he does adhere to an
anthropocentric humanism. Marx does seem to assume the
same dichotomy between theocentric and anthropocentric
humanism that we have criticised in Maritain and in rejecting the former he does appear to commit himself to the
latter: ‘The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that
man is the highest being for man.’6 In overcoming religion
humans become the object of value for humans: ‘religion is
only the illusory sun which revolves aroun.d man as long as
he does not revolve around himself.’? These claims might
just be taken to be an affirmation of a this-worldly conception of human flourishing. However, there are reasons for
supposing that they should be taken more literally – that
Marx does conceive of human flourishing in terms of
humans revolving around themselves. Running through the
early works appears to be a narcissistic view of the relation
of humans and nature that Marx inherits from Hegel:

according to this view, their instrumental value to humans
aside, non-human beings and objects only have value in so
far as humans can see in them the embodiments of their own
powers. This view is particularly apparent in the normative
status that’ objectification’ plays in Marx’ s theory of alienation and his related defence of the humanisation of nature.

If it is the case that the early Marx assumes an anthropocentric humanism then the early works will not prove an
easy source for a green Marxism. In the bulk of this paper
I examine those points which do suggest that Marx was
committed to an anthropocentric humanism and I highlight
problems with such a position. In developing this argument
I show that the claim in Marx’s early writings which is
closely akin to claims made within recent green thought, i.e.

that nature is ‘man’s inorganic body’ , is akin to just that part
of green thought that is least satisfactory. It should be noted
that it is not my purpose in this paper to show that there is
nothing of value for green thought in Marx’s early works:

I believe there are passages in the early manuscripts that are


open to an ecologically benign interpretation and in the last
section I will sketch such an interpretation. 8 My claim is
rather that there are central components of Marx’ s early
thought inherited from Hegel which cannot be incorporated
into a defensible ecological political theory and that, unfortunately, what is taken to be of value in his early work are
often just these parts of his thought which should be

Producer and product
Central to Marx’s theory of alienation is a quasi-Aristotelian claim – that the capacity for free conscious productive
activity is distinctive of the human species, and hence that
the realisation of this capacity is a necessary condition for
a flourishing human life. 9 Hence alienation from labour
entails that the worker cannot lead a fully human life: he or
she acts freely only in the performance of animal functions:

‘Man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in
his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating,
or at most in his dwelling and in dressing up, etc.; and
in his human functions he no longer feels himself to
be anything but an animal.’
It is only through engagement in non-alienated labour that

humans are capable of realising those powers which are
essentially human.

Central to the positive value placed on the capacity to
labour is the claim that through labour specifically human
powers take on an external and public form in the object of
labour. All labour, in addition to issuing in objects of usevalue to others, involves the objectification of a person’s
human powers:

The object of labour is … the objectification of the
species-life of man, for he duplicates himself not
only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also
actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a
world that he has created. 11
In his ‘Comments on James Mill’s Elements of Political
Economy’, Marx writes of non-alienated labour that:

In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life
during the activity, but also when looking at the
object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the
senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 12
This view that the product of labour has value as an
embodiment of the skills and capacities of the producer is
often taken to be an inheritance from Hegel. I3 However, it
has its roots in Aristotle. Aristotle offers the following
general account of the relationship of producer to product:

1. Being is choiceworthy and lovable for all.

2. We are in so far as we are actualised, since we are in so
far as we live and act.

3. The product is, in a way, the producer of his actualisation.


Hence the producer is fond of the product, because he
loves his own being. And this is natural, since what he
is potentially is what the product indicates in actualisation.14
For Aristotle, the good life involves the active employment
of our human capacities and hence we value the product of
our activities since in the product we are able to contemplate
the actualisation of our capacities.

The claim that the realisation of specific human capacities is a good for human beings is not one that I wish to deny.

Neither do I want to deny that pride in the product of their
exercise is often proper and appropriate. This much of the
positions of both Aristotle and Marx appears to be right.

However, it is impossible to take these claims in a narcissistic direction which is not only ethically objectionable, but
also incoherent. There are grounds for thinking that both
Aristotle and Marx sometimes do fall foul of such narcissism.

Consider Aristotle’s account of the relation of parents to
their children. Aristotle uses the relationship of the craftsman to his product as a model for his account of the
relationship between parents and children. 15 In both relationships the producers love their products because they are
an embodiment of themselves. Just as the craftsman sees in
the product the actualisation of his or her own potentialities,
likewise a parent sees this in his or her child. In both cases,
‘because the producer loves his own being’, he loves the
product as an actualisation of it. Hence the following
remark: ‘A parent loves his children as [he loves] himself.

For what has come from him is a sort of other himself… , 16
Now while I don’t dispute the possibility of a proper pride
in one’s children, there does seem to be something potentially unsatisfactory about Aristotle’s position. An important aspect of a properly constituted relation of parents to
children appears to be missing, namely parents’ appreciation of their children for what they are in themselves,
independently of what they have made of them. Self-love
appears as the primary source of parents’ love for their
children. A parent is fond of his children ‘because he loves
his own being’; the child is loved because he is ‘a sort of
other himself’. The appreciation of, and love for, a child for
qualities which are independent of the workmanship of the
parent plays no role in Aristotle’s account.17
It might be argued that the problem with Aristotle’s
position is an important disanalogy between producing
children and producing other objects. Children are independent selves with a potential for autonomy in a way in
which the inanimate objects of craftsmanship are not.

Hence one can be proud of family in a way that is different
from the way in which one can be proud of the products of
one’s craftsmanship: one is able to be proud of what they
have made themselves, and not just or even primarily of
what you have made them. To this point one might respond
on Aristotle’s behalf that there is no necessary conflict
between seeing a child as an embodiment of oneself and
seeing her as an autonomous agent. The process of moral
education is for Aristotle not merely one of habituation to
the virtues but also of the development of practical wisdom,


Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

and one sign of persons of practical wisdom is that they do
not act merely from conformity or habit, but rather from a
decision to perform a virtuous action for its own sake. 18 To
see a person as ‘a sort of other oneself’ is in part to see her
as a being capable of autonomy like oneself. 19 But this reply
is not entirely satisfactory, for it glosses over a real tension
between a child’s being autonomous and being an ‘other
oneself’, for to be autonomous precisely entails a freedom
to be other than an ‘other oneself’. A parent who attempts
to both instill autonomy and create in the child an ‘other
himself’ is trying ‘to possess a freedom as a freedom’ .20 The
project is self-defeating. One has either to give up the notion
that one’s children are objectifications of oneself or surrender the value of autonomy.

However, be this as it may, the problem with Aristotle’s
position is not simply one of the child’s potential for
autonomy. Regardless of whether children are one’s own
work or their own, to value them only as an embodiment of
one’s own powers reveals a peculiarly narcissistic attitude.

It is to treat others simply as a kind of mirror in which we can
admire our own capacities and powers. Such an attitude
involves a failure of appreciation of the value persons have
in virtue of their own qualities. Moreover this attitude is
incoherent, for justifiable pride is dependent on such independent value: no proper pride is possible for the production
of children who are moral monsters no matter what the skills
that went into their making.

This last line of criticism is as true of the relation of
workers to their products as it is of parents to children. To
value an object simply as an objectification of one’s powers
and capacities is also peculiarly narcissistic: it is to treat
objects simply as mirrors in which we can contemplate our
own powers and involves a failure to appreciate the value
the objects have independently of their being an embodiment of such powers. This attitude is also incoherent.

Justifiable pride felt by a craftsman for his or her product is
again dependent on such independent value. If the object is
in itself worthless then little, if any, proper pride in being its
creator is possible. Thus, for example, a gigantic stack of
playing cards embodies great skills, but like many of the
achievements recorded in the Guinness Book of Records,
the product itself is of little independent value; hence also
the limit in justifiable pride in comparison, say, with the
skills embodied in the production of the Sistine Chapel. To
value an object simply as an embodiment of one’s skills is
to fail to understand even the value of those skills themselves. The proper relationship is this – ‘I’m good because
I made this product and it is good’ – and not the selfindulgent – ‘I’m good because I made this product and it is
good because I made it’ .21
There are two possible rejoinders that might be made to
this argument. First, it might be objected that the problem
with the Guinness Book of Records achievements is that the
kinds of skills involved are normally limited and insignificant. If one assumed that more significant skills were
involved in the production of a gigantic stack of playing
cards, then my claims would be less defensible. The product
would be considered of value, and it would be so simply in
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

virtue of the skills it embodies. This response fails however:

the significance and value we place on different skills itself
depends on the value we independently place on the objects
in which they issue. Hence, the undoubted physical skills
involved in balancing cards one upon another do not count
as significant or valuable in the ways that those involved in
carpentry do.

Second, it might be argued that what distinguishes
significant and insignificant achievements is not dependent
on the value of the products in which they issue, but purely
the social esteem assigned to different activities. But this
reply fails for reasons that Aristotle himself develops. The
concept of social esteem, like that of honour, is parasitic on
the existence of goods for which such esteem is deserved.

We hold in esteem those who have done something worthy
of esteem. Correspondingly, the aim of individuals in
pursuing honour is ‘to convince themselves that they are
good’. Hence it is simply incoherent to take honour and
esteem to be themselves ultimate goods. They can only be
derivative on other goods in virtue of which esteem is
received. 22
My arguments this far have focused on Aristotle rather
than Marx. However, they apply also to Marx’s treatment of
labour which follows the same narcissistic direction as that
of Aristotle. Marx, like Aristotle, sees the relationship of
worker to product primarily as one of self-objectification.

The product is valued as an embodiment of the powers and
capacities which we can contemplate in it. Thus, in communism ‘our products would be so many mirrors in which we
saw reflected our essential natures’ .23 The narcissistic treatment of the relationship of producer to pr~duct is most
clearly apparent in Marx’s treatment of the proper relationship of humans to nature. In consequence Marx’ s humanism takes an anthropocentric turn.

Marx, humans and nature
In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the relationship of the worker to his or her product outlined above
is generalised by Marx to provide an account of the relationship of human beings to the natural world. Nature has value
in virtue of its possibilities for the objectification of human
capacities. Thus Marx writes of objectification that ‘through
… production nature appears as his work and his reality’ .24
In communist society ‘all objects become for him the
objectification of himself, become objects which confirm
and realise his individuality, become his objects’ .25 Humans
li ve in a ‘humanised nature’ .26 These remarks are not among
Marx’s clearest. In what sense can all objects become
objectifications of an individual activity? The most uncharitable reading of these remarks would involve ascribing
to Marx the view that in communism humans will leave no
object untouched by human activity. Given such an interpretation not only is the humanisation of nature undesirable,
it is also impossible. Claims about the end of nature notwithstanding, humans are not capable of directly transforming
everything in nature. The claim, sometimes imputed to
Marx, that ‘nature is socially constructed’ ,27 is likewise

false. While it is undoubtedly true that humans have had an
enormous influence on the natural world, an influence to be
increased still further through the changes to the global
climate, it does not follow that nature is a human construction. That A influences B does not entail that B is A’s
construction. 28
Is there a more charitable interpretation of these remarks? One aspect of the humanisation of nature for Marx
is the transformation of nature by human industry:

the history of industry and the established objective
existence of industry are the open book of man’s
essential powers . … We have before us the objectified
essential powers of man in the form of sensuous,
alien, useful objects, in the form of estrangement,
displayed in ordinary material industry.29
It is in industry that we fine the ‘actual historical relationship’ of nature to man. 3D However, itis not only in the actual
production of objects that nature is humanised – only a
small part of the natural world can be directly shaped by
human industry into human products. Also involved is the
potential of nature to form the material for objectification.

Thus Marx describes nature as man’s ‘inorganic body both in as much as nature is (1) his direct means of life and
(2) the material, the object and instrument of his life
activities’ .31 However, to ascribe to Marx a view of nature
simply as material for industry would be mistaken. Marx
explicitly distances himself from a narrowly utilitarian
view of nature as the means for the satisfaction of basic
material needs: such a view merely reflects the alienated
condition of humanity. The humanisation of nature in
communist society has an aesthetic dimension, a point
Marx develops in his remarks about the ’emancipation of
the senses’ .

In producing aesthetic objects we develop our senses:

we develop a ‘human’ eye and ear distinct from the ‘crude
non-human’ eye and ear; for example, ‘only music awakens
in man the sense ofmusic.’32 (Similarly Marx remarks later
in the Grundrisse that’ an objet d’ art creates a public that has
aesthetic taste and is able to enjoy beauty’ .33 Individuals
driven by poverty to satisfy only basic needs, or by the
market to think always in terms of the commercial value of
objects are unable to develop the human senses to the full;
hence ‘the emancipation of the senses’ in communism. For
Marx, then, it is through the creation of new aesthetic
objects that specifically human senses are developed – an
aesthetically receptive eye and ear. So how does the development of an aesthetic sensibility humanise nature? Again
I take it that Marx cannot be claiming that nature is humanised simply in the sense that it is actually transformed into
artistic objects. Only a small part of nature is thus altered.

Furthermore, Marx does not deny the possibility of aesthetic appreciation of non-human objects: he refers elsewhere to natural objects ‘plants, animals, stones, air, light’

as ‘objects of art’ and hence as part of man’s ‘spiritual
inorganic nature’. What, then, is Marx claiming in these

Marx’s point appears to be that the development of the

aesthetic senses through artistic production humanises nature in the sense that it creates aesthetic value in natural
objects. Natural objects take on aesthetic properties only
through human productive activities. In defending this
position Marx presupposes an Hegelian account of the
aesthetics of nature, that any beauty that can be ascribed to
natural objects is derivative on the aesthetic value of works
of art. 34 There are at least two versions of this claim:

(1) Only works of art have aesthetic properties properly
speaking. We attribute surrogate aesthetic properties to
natural objects and scenes by viewing them as if they
were works of art. 35
(2) Natural objects of aesthetic value are themselves indirect embodiments of the work of artists. To give a
standard example often cited in this regard, the English
romantic poets and artists on this view did not discover
but rather created the beauty of the English Lake
District. By making natural objects the object of poetry,
painting and other artistic activity they developed an
aesthetic sensibility for such objects and hence also
gave aesthetic value to them. Hence the aesthetic value
of nature is derivative on the activities of the artist.

Thus, all objects which have aesthetic value exhibit
indirectly the powers and capacities of the artists from
whose activities their value derives. The English Lake
District is in part the embodiment of the artistic activity
of Wordsworth.

Both versions of the Hegelian aesthetic are consistent with
Marx’s view that the natural world is humanised by artistic
production. The consequence of this position is that in
appreciating natural beauty we appreciate our 6wn powers.

As Croce puts it: ‘As regards natural beauty, man is like the
mythical Narcissus at the fountain.’ 36 That view, for all its
current popularity, is even less convincing than a narcissistic account of the value of the products of human skills.

Artistic production may help us notice the aesthetic proper-

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

ties of natural objects to which we were blind, it may in that
sense educate the eye and ear, but it does not follow that
artistic production thereby creates such properties. Nor
does it follow that we can appreciate the aesthetic qualities
of natural objects only by treating them as if they were
works of art or the embodiment of the skills of an artist. Such
a view is forced. A proper aesthetic appreciation of objects
in the natural world is just that – the appreciation of those
objects for the aesthetic properties which they possess and
to which we have learned to respond.37
While Marx’s account of ‘humanised nature’ is not
narrowly utilitarian and has an aesthetic dimension, the
appropriation and appreciation of nature is still conceived in
terms of a response to human productions. It remains the
case that nature has value only in so far as it directly or
indirectly embodies human powers or forms the raw material on which human powers might be realised. Objects are
valued in terms of their potential for the manifestation of
human capacities. The claim that nature should be humanised exhibits a ‘species-narcissism’38 which is akin to the
kind of narcissism to be found in Aristotle’s account of the
relation of producer to product. Humans value nature as an
object in which they can actually or potentially contemplate
the embodiment of human capacities and powers. Hence the
view, central to much recent green thought, that some nonhuman entities in the natural world have intrinsic value
appears to be ruled out by Marx’ s position. Marx’ s humanism is an anthropocentric humanism which does not allow
for a biocentric set of values.

Marx, Hegel and Alienation from Nature
Marx’s failure to entertain the notion of intrinsic value in
natural objects stems in part from his having inherited from
Hegel a view that humans need to be reconciled to nature,
that the alienness of nature is itself a problem. Humans need
to come to feel at home in the natural world. Thus for Hegel,
the story of the fall of man is the story of the schism of man
and nature,39 and the progress of Spirit is the story of their
reconciliation. He writes thus of the aims and nature of the
philosophy of nature:

the specific character and goal of the Philosophy of
Nature [is] that Spirit finds in Nature its own essence.

… The Study of Nature is thus the liberation of Spirit
in her, for Spirit is in her in so far as it is in relation,
not with an other, but with itself.This is also the
liberation of Nature; implicitly she is Reason, but it
is through Spirit that Reason as such first emerges
from Nature into existence. Spirit has the certainty
which Adam had when he looked on Eve: ‘This is
flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone’ .40
Now Marx clearly rejects Hegel’s idealist solution to the
problem of reconciling man and nature. Nature is not an
embodiment of Spirit. However, he does not reject Hegel’ s
problem – that there is something wrong with alienation
between man and nature, that humans need to feel at home
in the natural world. Rather, he offers a different solution.

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

Reconciliation is possible through the humanisation of
nature by means of human labour so that we are able, in
reality, to see human powers objectified in the external
world. 41 Hence, communism is ‘the genuine resolution of
the conflict between man and nature. ’42
The problem here is Marx’ s acceptance of Hegel’ s
problem in the first place. There are a number of real
problems surrounding the relation of humans to nature
which are becoming increasingly pressing – problems of
pollution, the disappearance of species, resource depletion
and so on. However, Hegel’s problem – that we are alienated from nature in the sense that we cannot see ourselves
in it – is not one of them, and the solution to it that Marx
envisages, the humanisation of nature, looks more like a
contribution to the problems humans face in their attitude to
and activities in the natural world than a contribution to a
proper relation between humans and nature.

The idea that ‘alienation from nature’ is a problem that
needs to be overcome is one element of Marx’ s early work
that has appeared to be particularly relevant to modern
environmental thought, as has one route for solving it – the
fuzzying of the boundary between self and nature. 43 But
what is wrong with alienation from nature? An answer to
this specific question demands an answer to the more
general question: what is wrong with alienation? The use of
the term ‘alienation’ in a critical sense involves the claim
that things which belong together have become separated
from each other: correspondingly, overcoming alienation
involves reconciliation between divided entities. In considering whether alienation between two entities x and y is
objectionable we need to specify in what sense x and y
belong together and relatedly what is wrong with their
having been separated. Consider the case of relationships
between humans. Marx, like Hegel, does not criticise all
forms of separation between people: specifically, separation in the sense of individuals having a developed sense of
their own identity as individuals is not a problem, but rather
an achievement of alienation, something that is to be retained when alienation is overcome in the post-capitalist
community. The forms of separation that capitalism engenders of which Marx is critical are more specific. They
include the following: that people are placed in conflict and
competition with each other, that they are hostile to each
other, that they treat each other purely as a means to their
own ends and not as ends in themselves, that the relations
between them are impersonal, that they are indifferent to
each other. 44 Marx’ s criticisms hinge on the claim that, if it
were possible, a social world without such features, but in
which individuals retained a sense of their individual identities, is better than both one in which communities are such
that individual identities disappear altogether and one in
which one’s sense of identity is achieved only through
relationships having the features noted. In answering the
question ‘what is wrong with alienation?’ we need to
consider the specific forms of separation the term is being
used to characterise. Thus, in relationships between humans, prima facie, conflict and purely instrumental relations between individuals are objectionable. On the other

hand, the claim that there is something wrong with relations
which are impersonal or involve a degree of indifference
between individuals is more problematic: it is true that not
all relationships with others should be like this, but that
some are of this kind seems harmless if not beneficial.

Turning to the relations between humans and nature,
what forms of separation are objectionable here? That we
have a clear sense of our own individual identity is as
desirable in our relation to nature as it is in our relations with
other human beings. However, this entails resistingjust that
component of Marx’ s work which appears to be most
compatible with recent green thought, that is the claim that
nature is our ‘inorganic body’. This aspect of Marx’s
treatment of relations between humans and nature is one
that has a strong resonance with some current work in
environmental ethics which has appealed to ecology in
order to fuzzy the distinction between self and the nonhuman world. Compare for example the following remarks
of Holmes Rolston:

Ecology does not know an encapsulated ego over and
against his or her environment. … The human vascular system includes arteries, veins, rivers, oceans and
air currents. Cleaning a dump is not different in kind
from filling a tooth. The self metabolic ally , if metaphorically, interpenetrates the ecosystem. The world
is my body.45
The treatment of the world as my body provides a simple
solution to problems concerning duties to the environment:

they become a species of duties to oneself. As Callicott puts
it, if ecology implies the’ continuity of self and nature’ then:

‘If the self is intrinsically valuable, then nature is intrinsically valuable. If it is rational for me to act in my own best
interest, and I and nature are one, then it is rational for me
to act in the best interest of nature.’46 Marx’s view that
nature is our ‘inorganic body’ has been employed to similar
effect: ‘It is natural for man, the conscious social being, to
act rationally and consciously for the good of all species,
which is his own long range good (since nature is his
However, this solution to the problem of justifying
duties to the environment should be rejected on at least two
grounds. (1) Nothing in the science of ecology entails that
there is no significant division between an individual organism and its environment. Ecology studies the relationships
between different populations that are made up of just such
individual organisms. It entails no radically holistic ontology. Hence it does not entail that ‘I and nature are one’ or
that ‘the world is my body’ .48 (2) The view is ethically
untenable. While it appears to give an easy route to duties
to the ‘non-human’ world, the duties it provides are too
weak. Duties to oneself are in significant ways less stringent
than duties to others. Thus, while it may be foolish, and
perhaps also a dereliction of one’s obligations to oneself, to
smoke, take no exercise, let one’s teeth rot and generally
abuse. one’s body, abuse of the bodies of others is an
altogether more serious affair. What is permissible in the
former case is impermissible in the latter. Likewise, to say

that filling a dump is like filling our own teeth is to permit
ourselves much weaker grounds for so doing than if the
dump is considered a part of an independent world inhabited by others. It is in virtue of the fact that the non-human
beings have separate identities and are not simply extensions of ourselves that we have the duties we have to them.

Only such recognition makes sense of environmental concerns. If I am concerned about the fate of a colony of birds
it is not because they are an extension of me. It is a concern
for individuals for their sakes and not my own. To treat
nature as my inorganic body is to fail to acknowledge the
ways in which individuals in non-human nature have their
own identities and their own distinct nature~, deserving of
treatment appropriate to their natures. Marx’ s view of
nature as our ‘inorganic body’, together with those ‘holistic’ components of recent green thought to which it is
similar, should be rejected.

Moreover, not only is the non-human world distinct
from ourselves, it is also in important senses alien to us in
ways that are not objectionable and which we could not
overcome even if it were desirable to do so. For example,
that nature is impersonal and indifferent to human concerns
and needs is not something that humans are capable of
changing. As Passmore notes:

The philosopher has to learn to live with the ‘strangeness’ of nature, with the fact that natural processes
are entirely indifferent to our existence and welfarenot positively indifferent, of course, but incapable of
caring about us – and are complex in a way that rules
out the possibility of our wholly mastering and transforming them.49
Nature’s strangeness and indifference to our concerns is not
only something that we cannot overcome, but is also something that we ought not even to attempt to overcome. The
assumption that the discovery of nature’s impersonality and
indifference is something to be regretted, a cause of the
‘disenchantment of the world’ ,50 needs to be rejected. It is
based on an assumption that the only entities which we can
value are those that are capable of reciprocating such
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

attitudes to ourselves. The assumption that we can care only
for those capable of caring for ourselves reflects an anthropocentric set of values. The depersonalisation of nature
represents not a disenchantment of the world but the basis
for a proper enchantment with it. Appreciation of the
strangeness of nature is a component of a proper valuation
of it.

There is in any case a necessary regulation between
ethical concern for an object and true beliefs about it: proper
concern for an object x presupposes the possession of a core
set of true beliefs about x. This is not just because if one has
fa~se beliefs about x concerned actions for x are likely to be
mIsplaced, true as this is. It is also that if one has systematically false beliefs about x, there is a sense in which x is not
the object of one’s concern at all. Hence the justifiable
complaint lovers sometimes make on parting: ‘You never
really loved me; you loved someone else you mistook me
for.’ A similar complaint can be made of those in green
movements who insist on an anti-scientific, mythologised
and personalised picture of the natural world: the natural
world simply isn’t the object of their concern.

Returning to Marx’ s Hegelian problem – that we do not
feel at home in the world in the sense that we do not see in
the non-human world embodiments of human powers and
capacities – surely this also is not a form of separation about
which we have grounds for complaint. It is rather an
occasion for celebration. Consider John Muir’s opposition
to the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley on the grounds
that wild mountain parks should be ‘saved from all … marks
of man’s work’ .51 The appeal here is to the value wilderness
ha~ in virtue of its not bearing the imprint of human activity.

WIlderness, empty mountains, the stars at night, the complex behaviour of non-human living things – all have value
as objects of contemplation in part in virtue of their lacking
any human significance. Their indifference to our interests
concerns and projects, together with the absence in them of
any signs of human presence, is a source of their value. We
value the non-human world because we do not want to see
in everything the mirroring of human powers or possibili-

ties for human activity. The problem which Marx is concerned to solve by the ‘humanisation of nature’ is no
problem at all. The separateness of nature in the sense in
which it is not an embodiment of human powers is not a
source of disvalue but of value. There is, in this particular
sense, no conflict between man and nature for which communism need be a solution.

Postscript: An ecologically benign

In the opening section of this paper I stated that it is difficult
to come by an unequivocal answer to the question of the
kind of humanism assumed by Marx. In this paper I have
argued for a particularly anthropocentric interpretation of
Marx’s early views on the relation of man and nature. In
doing so I have placed particular stress on his remark that in
communist society all objects are to become objectifications
of human powers, and I have assumed that the humanisation
of nature must be read in terms of such a generalised
objectification. It is possible however to place a more
benign interpretation on the phrase ‘humanisation of nature’ . Nature might also be said to be humanised in the sense
that we are able to understand its properties and appreciate
its qualities. We are at home with the world in the sense that
w~ are able to grasp and value the order it exhibits through
SCIence and the arts. There are passages in Marx’s early
work that would support this position. Thus in referring to
nature as man’s’ spiritual inorganic nature’ Marx writes that
‘plants, animals, stones, air, light, etc. theoretically form
part of human consciousness, partly as objects of science
and partly as objects of art’ .52 Furthermore he writes a few
paragraphs later of human production ‘applying to each
object its inherent standard; hence man also produces in
accordance with the laws of beauty’ .53 The notion that
objects have their own inherent standards of beauty that
appears to be presupposed by this remark is incompatible
with the Hegelian aesthetic I ascribed to Marx earlier and
suggests a less anthropocentric position. The passages are
compatible with a biocentric humanism according to which
to become fully human involves the development of our
capacity to grasp nature’s qualities and value. Such a
position is akin to that found in Aristotle’s biological
writings which are markedly less anthropocentric and narcissistic with respect to the natural world than are his ethical
and political works:

In all natural things there is something wonderful.

And just as Heraclitus is said to have spoken to his
visitors, who were waiting to meet him but stopped as
they were approaching when they saw him warming
himself at the oven – he kept telling them to come in
and not worry, for ‘there are gods here too’ – so we
should approach the inquiry about each animal without aversion knowing that in all of them there is
something natural and beautiful. 54
It may be, then, that Marx’ s humanism is open to a more
ecologically benign interpretation, and I have developed
such an interpretation in detail elsewhere. 55 The picture of

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994


Marx that emerges is one which allows for considerably
more value to the contemplative virtues than is standardly
assumed in interpretations of Marx, not least that presented
in the rest of this paper. There are some grounds for the
complaint that the interpretation of Marx developed in this
paper is uncharitable and, it should be added, still stronger
grounds for saying that Aristotle receives a raw deal. s6 And
it is well to remember that it is Marx’ s early notebooks with
which we are dealing, not fully articulated and published
positions. However, whatever the merits of the benign
position thus attributed to Marx – and I believe they are
considerable – on the most charitable reading of Marx’ s
works it cannot be unequivocally said to be his. The interpretation is not easy to square with much in Marx’ s texts and
is at odds with the Hegelian context of the early works. Thus
even some of the ‘benign’ passages cited in this section
suggest an anthropocentric position: for example, Marx
maintains that humans ‘must first prepare’ nature before it
can be enjoyed as part of spiritual life and mention of
aesthetics remains tied to a discussion of productive activity. While the view that emerges on a benign interpretation
is that we ought to adopt, I am not convinced that it is that
which Marx held. 57


The source is normally taken to be Hegel’s Phenomenology of
Spirit, in particular in the discussion of labour in the section on
the master-slave dialectic (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit,
Miller trans., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 118ff).

For criticism of the standard view see C. Arthur, Dialectics of
Labour (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (trans. Irwin), Indianapolis,
Hackett, 1985, 1168a5-10. 10.1 097b24-1 098a6.


Ibid. 1167b34ff. See also 1. Benson, ‘Making friends’, in A.

Loizou (ed.) The Good of Community: Essays in Greek Moral
and Political Philosophy (London: Gower, forthcoming) and
Milgram, ‘Aristotle on making other selves’, Canadian Journal
of Philosophy, 17, 1987, pp. 361-376, both of whom argue that
the producer-product model outlined here applies also for Aristotle to relationships between friends.

Ibid. 1161b27ff.; cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1946), 1371 b20ff.

Similar points might be made with respect to Hegel’ s treatment
of children as objectifications of the love of their parents. Thus
Hegel writes of the unity he takes couples to realise through
marriage that ‘It is only in the children that the unity itself exists
externally, objectively, and explicitly as a unity, because parents
love the children as their love, as the embodiment of their own
substance’ (Hegel, Philosophy ofRight, trans. T. Knox, Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1967, para. 173, my emphasis). In the
addition to this passage, Hegel remarks that, in their children,
parents’ can see objectified the entirety of their union. In a child,
a mother loves its father and he its mother. Both have their love
objectified for them in the child’ (Ibid., para. 173A). In their
children parents can contemplate in an external and public form
their love for each other.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1144a13-20.

A similar defence might be made of Hegel: the aim of education
in the family is to realise the child’s potentiality for freedom
which brings with it the dissolution of the family (Hegel,
Philosophy of Right, paras. 175-177).




See for example D. C. Lee, ‘On the Marxian view of the
relationship of man and nature’, Environmental Ethics 2, 1980,
pp. 3-16; and P. Dickens, Society and Nature (Harvester
Wheatsheaf, New York, 1992), chapter 3.

On the claim that nature has intrinsic value see 1. O’Neill, ‘The
varieties of intrinsic value’, The Monist 75, 1992; and Ecology,
Policy and Politics (Routledge, London, 1993), chapter 2. For
arguments against humanism, see S. Clark, The Moral Status of
Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 7ff. and
135ff., although Clark allows that ‘true humanism’ can be
biocentric (ibid., p. ix). Cf. T. Benton, ‘Humanism =speciesism:

Marx on humans and animals’, Radical Philosophy 50, 1988, pp.



1. Maritain, True Humanism (London: Geoffrey Bles, 5th edition, 1950), p. xii.


Ibid., p. 19ff. and chapter 2.

I sketch a defence of this position in 1. O’Neill, ‘The varieties of
intrinsic value’, The Monist 75, 1992. Cf. S. Clark, The Moral
Status ofAnimals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp.

vii-x and 183-186.



K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. III (London:

Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), p. 182.


Ibid., p. 176.

I develop this interpretation in more detail in O’Neill, ‘Science,
wonder and the lust of the eyes’, Journal ofApplied Philosophy
forthcoming, and Ecology, Policy and Politics (Routledge,
London, 1993), chapter 9. I should add that there is also much in
the later writings that deserves more attention than it has received: see O’Neill, ‘Future generations: Present harms’, Philosophy 68, 1993, pp. 35-51, and Ecology, Policy and Politics
(Routledge, London, 1993), chapters 3 and 10.





See K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, especially p. 274ff)n K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol.

III (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975).

Ibid., p. 275.

Ibid., p. 277.

Ibid., p. 227.



The phrase is Sartre’s (J.-P. Sartre, Being ahd Nothingness,
London, Routledge, 1969, p. 367).


My thanks to Russell Keat for this formulation ofthe argument.

This mistake runs through a number of versions of expressivist
accounts of art.



Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b24-29. Compare
MacIntyre’s criticisms of the social world portrayed by Goffman
in A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 2nd edition,
1985), pp. 115-117.

Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. Ill, p. 228.


Ibid., p. 277.


Ibid., p. 303.

Ibid., p. 302.

See for example P. Dickens, ‘Towards an environmental social
theory’, paper given to ‘Realism and the Human Sciences’

Conference, Sussex University, 1991. The claim that nature is a
social construction is open to a conceptual reading, according to
which the natural world is ‘a blank sheet of paper which can be
inscribed with any message, and symbolic meaning, that the
social wishes’ (K. Tester, Animals and Society, London:

Routledge, 1991, p. 46). This kind of conceptual idealism is not
relevant here since it is foreign to the work ofMarx. I should add
that I see no grounds to take it seriously: the arguments standardly
presented in its defence provide good examples of use-mention

This point is made by V. Routley, ‘On Marx as an environmental
hero’, Environmental Ethics, 3, 1981, p. 239. Routley herself
does assume the uncharitable interpretation of Marx outlined
and rightly rejects it. However, as I show, more charitable
interpretations are possible.




Ibid., p. 302.

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994


Ibid., p. 303.


Ibid., pp. 275-276. Cf. K. Marx, Capital, Vol. I (London:


Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. Ill, p. 301.


K. Marx, German Ideology (ed. C. Arthur) (London: Lawrence
and Wishart, 1974), p. 133.


Hegel,Aesthetics (T. M. Knox trans.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1975), chapter 11. For a useful discussion of this claim see S.

Bungay, Beauty and Truth: A Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics

the excellent discussions in R. Sylvan, ‘A critique of deep
ecology’, Radical Philosophy 40 and 41, 1985, especially Part
11, pp. 10-12, and A. Brennan, Thinking about Nature (London:

Routledge, 1988), chapters 5-8.

Lawrence and Wishart, 1974), chapter VII, para 1, pp. 173ff.


1. Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, 2nd edition
(London: Duckworth, 1980), Appendix p. 8.


The term is Weber’s for whom the process of rationalisation of
modem society which includes the development of modem
science represents a disenchantment of the world: see, for
example, Gerth and Mills (eds), From Max Weber (London:

Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948), pp. 139f. and 357.


Cited in R. Dubos, The Wooing of the Earth (London: Athlone
Press, 1980), p. 135. Compare Marshall’s comment: ‘A person
might die spiritually if he could not sometimes forsake all
contact with his gregarious fellowmen, and the machines which
they have created, and retire to an environment where there was
no remote trace of humanity’ (cited in S. Fox, The American
Conservation Movement, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1895). See V. Routley, ‘On Marx as an environmental hero’, Environmental Ethics 3, 1981, pp. 237–44, for a
similar point. This is not to deny that some more humanised parts
of nature have value. In Britain, for example, where nearly all of
the natural environment bears the imprint of human activity, the
result in some places has been complex eco-systems with greater
internal diversity than that which would exist without human


Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. Ill, p. 275.

Ibid., p. 276.

Aristotle, On the Parts ofAnimals, Book I, chapter 5, 645a 16ff.

While in the Politics (1256b 17) Aristotle defends a clearly

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 13ff. and R. Scruton,

Art and Imagination (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 16lff.

See for example B. Croce, Aesthetic (London: Vision Press,
1967), p. 99. (Hence his odd claim that the landscape appears an
ideal spectacle ‘if we contemplate it through our legs’.)


Croce, Aesthetic, p. 99.


Compare I. Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (London:

Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 84ff. See also Sibley’s
observation that aesthetic interest in artistic objects is dependent
on prior natural responses to everyday objects. It is only on the
basis of these that we are able to begin to learn and apply
aesthetic concepts. (F. Sibley, ‘Aesthetic concepts’ in C. Barrett
(ed.) Collected Papers on Aesthetics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1965,
p. 86ff.). While art can and does develop aesthetic sensibilities,
the non-derivative applicability of aesthetic concepts to natural
objects is a precondition for the possibility of aesthetic education.


The phrase is also used by T. Benton, ‘Humanism =speciesism:

Marx on humans and animals’ ,Radical Philosophy 50, 1988, pp.



Hegel, Logic, Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (W. Wallace trans.), Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1975, para. 24, esp. p. 42ff.


Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, Part Two of the Encyclopaedia of
the Philosophical Sciences (A. Miller trans.), Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1970, para. 2462, p. 13.


Cf. C. Taylor, Hegel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1975, p. 550ff.


Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. Ill, p. 296.


Central to much recent green philosophy has been the idea that
ecology, together with the ‘new physics’, entails a radically new
holistic perspective which undermines the separation of self and
natural world and provides the basis for a new ethic. See for
example C. Spretnak and F. Capra, Green Politics (London:

Paladin, 1985), chapter 2; and A. Naess, ‘The shallow and the
deep, long-range ecology movements’, Inquiry 16, 1973, pp.

95-100. See also footnotes 44, 45 and 47. As will emerge below
I believe that this component of green thought should be rejected, a point I also develop in O’Neill, ‘The varieties of
intrinsic value’, The Monist, 75, 1992. For a powerful statement
of the opposite view according to which nature’s separation
from us is the source of an environmental ethic, see P. Reed,
‘Man apart: An alternative to the self-realization approach’,
Environmental Ethics 11, 1989, pp. 53-69. While Reed’s position is closer to that defended here, his anti-humanist elaboration
of this view is not one I share.


See C. Gould, Marx’s Social Ontology (Cambridge, Mass.:

M.I. T. Press, 1980) and R. Keat, ‘Individualism and community
in socialist thought’ in 1. Mepham and D. -H. Ruben (eds), Issues
in Marxist Philosophy, Vol. 4: Social and Political Philosophy
(Brighton, Harvester, 1981).


Holmes Rolston, ‘Is there an ecological ethic?’ in Philosophy
Gone Wild (New York: Prometheus, 1989), p. 23.


1. B. Callicott, ‘Intrinsic value, quantum theory and environmental ethics’, Environmental Ethics 7, 1985, pp. 257-275.


D. Lee, ‘On the Marxian view of the relationship between man
and nature’ , Environmental Ethics 2, 1980, p. 16.


For a development of criticisms of recent ‘ecological holism’ see

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994


anthropocentric view of the non-human world – plants exist for
the sake of animals and animals for the sake of humans – there
is in Aristotle’s philosophical work the foundations of a more
ecologically benign position. It is not surprising that some of the
best classical writing of the natural world is that of his student
Theophrastus whom Hughes, with good reason, has dubbed ‘the
father of ecology’ (1. D. Hughes, ‘Ecology in -Ancient Greece’,
Inquiry, 18, 1975, pp. 115-125).


See 1. O’Neill, ‘Science, wonder and the lust of the eyes’,

Journal of Applied Philosophy, forthcoming, and Ecology,
Policy and Politics (Routledge, London, 1993), chapter 9.


Hence, it might be said, with some justice, that Aristotle has
received less than fair treatment in this paper, that his remarks on
production and child-rearing which are central to his arguments
have been taken out of context. In particular, the passage in
which he argues production is valued as an actualisation of our
potentialities (Nicomachean Ethics 1168a 5-9) provides just
one example ofthe actualisation of human potentialities. In book
x of Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that human potentialities are realised more fully in acts of contemplation. Moreover,
in such acts we are closest to the life of the gods. It might be
argued that acts of contemplation can involve precisely the
appreciation of what is marvellous in the non-human world.

Maritain rightly notes that here is a theocentric component to
Aristotle’s thought (1. Maritain, True Humanism, London:

Geoffrey Bles, 5th edition, 1950, p. xi). We might add that there
are also suggestions of a biocentric component. I have argued in
detail elsewhere that a broadly Aristotelian account of wellbeing provides the best foundation for a satisfactory view of
proper ethical concern for both non-humans and future generations (1. O’Neill, Ecology, Policy and Politics, London,
Routledge, 1993).


Earlier versions of this paper were read to seminars at Kent
University, Liverpool University and Sussex University. It has
also benefited from discussions with members of the philosophy
department at Lancaster University. I would particularly like to
thank 10hn Benson, Stephen Clark, Andrew Collier, Roger
Crisp, Terry Diffey, Russell Keat, Luke Martell, Andrew Mason, 10e McCarney, David McLellan, Sean Sayers and Frank
Sibley for their comments and conversations.


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