Nature: Its Conceptual Architecture

by Louis Caruana (Author)
©2015 Monographs 336 Pages


Many philosophers adopt methods that emulate those of the natural sciences. They call such an overall approach naturalism, and consider it indispensable for fruitful philosophical debate in various areas. In spite of this consensus however, little is ever said about how naturalism depends on the underlying idea of nature, which we often endorse unconsciously. If we can determine how naturalism reflects an underlying account of nature, we would be in a better position to distinguish between different kinds of naturalism and to assess the merits of each. This book undertakes a sustained study of the concept of nature to answer this need. It examines in detail how conceptual, historical, and scientific constraints affect the concept of nature in various domains of philosophy, and how, in the opposite sense, these constraints are themselves affected by the concept of nature. In so doing, this book relates the conceptual framework of scientific inquiry back to the lived experience that is proper to everyday self-understanding.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 – Nature: a short history
  • 1. The dynamic view of Nature
  • 2. The mechanistic view of Nature
  • 3. The Romantic view of Nature
  • 4. The evolutionary view of Nature
  • Chapter 2 – Explaining Nature
  • 1. Observation
  • 2. The elements of the logic of explanation
  • 3. The practice of explanation
  • 4. Explanation and nature
  • Chapter 3 – Causes
  • 1. Causation detached from nature
  • 2. The concepts of causation and nature reunited?
  • 3. Natural causers
  • 4. Causal pluralism
  • Chapter 4 – The Limits of Causation
  • 1. What is the universe?
  • 2. The cause of the universe
  • 3. First objection: randomness
  • 4. Second objection: infinite regress
  • 5. Third objection: transcendence
  • Chapter 5 – Nature and ordinary language
  • 1. Ordinary language about the mind
  • 2. Ontological implications
  • 3. A new account of the mental
  • 4. Evaluation
  • Chapter 6 – Nature and Meaning
  • 1. The Tractatus
  • 2. The Philosophical Investigations
  • 3. Nature and meaning
  • Chapter 7 – Levels in Nature
  • 1. Emergent properties
  • 2. Habits as emergent properties
  • 3. Consciousness as an emergent property
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Chapter 8 – Nature, Evolution and Mind
  • 1. The evolutionary account of nature revisited
  • 2. Biology and culture
  • 3. Animal cognition
  • 4. Mind and language
  • 5. A synthetic account
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Chapter 9 – Nature, Value, and Morality
  • 1. Preliminary remarks on value and right action
  • 2. Evolutionary ethics
  • 3. A synthetic approach
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Chapter 10 – Nature and Concepts
  • 1. Microstucture
  • 2. A priori knowledge
  • 3. Conceptual analysis: two further clarifications
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Like most people, I owe to others more than I can say. This book originated in the philosophy of science and metaphysics modules I taught at Heythrop College, University of London, from 2007 to 2013. As such, it owes a debt to the students who followed these lectures and engaged with them, forcing me to rethink and clarify one issue after another. I owe the same kind of debt to members of the Philosophy Department who asked me questions and made suggestions when I presented parts of the book in research seminars. Special thanks are due to those who read and commented upon parts of the manuscript: Craig French, Peter Hacker, Christopher Humphries, Michael Lacewing, Sarah Pawlett, and an anonymous reader for the Philosophy Faculty of the Gregorian University, Rome. The inaccuracies and weaknesses that remain are, of course, entirely my responsibility. Although none of the chapters of this book has been published before in its present form, parts of some of them are extended and reworked versions of previously published or delivered papers. In chapter 6, I use material from “Is Science eliminating Ordinary Talk?” Forum Philosophicum 4 (1999), 25–39. Some parts of chapter 7 are derived from “Science interacting with Philosophy: the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein”, Gregorianum, 84/3 (2003), pp. 584–616. In chapter 9, I draw from my paper “A neglected difficulty with Social Darwinism,” Heythrop Journal 48 (2008): 1–9, and also from the paper I delivered in June 2008 at a conference on Biological Explanations of Behavior: philosophical perspectives, organized at the Leibniz University of Hannover, Germany; the paper was entitled “Evolutionary Ethics and Intentional Content.” Some sections of chapter 10 are derived from a paper entitled “Darwin and the Foundations of Morality” which I delivered at the 9th international symposium of the Institute of Humanities, UNISINOS, São Leopoldo, Brazil, entitled Echoes of Darwin (9–12 September, 2009). I thank the editors and publishers of these journals for permission to use this material here. I am grateful also ← 9 | 10 → to the Gregorian University, Rome, for its generous support, without which this book would never have seen the light of day, and to Benjamin Fröhlich and his team at Peter Lang for their encouragement and technical provision. As I approached the completion of this project, I became convinced that there remained a lot more to say about practically every topic I had explored and discussed. Readers should therefore not see my work as an attempt to say the last word on any topic. Understanding is a journey. My hope is that what I present in the following chapters can serve to energize and stimulate further inquiry in the right direction.

Louis Caruana

July 2014 ← 10 | 11 →


In much recent work in analytic philosophy, naturalism seems to have become the approach many philosophers swear allegiance to, even though there is no clear consensus yet as to what this allegiance really demands. For many, endorsing naturalism consists in adopting a set of starting points that are indispensable for fruitful work in various areas, with the predominant starting point being the claim that the methods of science are the only dependable ones for philosophy and for any other discipline. The plausibility of this assumption, however, and of others closely associated with it, has recently been questioned.1 The very idea of naturalism, whatever it may mean in detail, depends on the idea of nature, but this latter concept, in spite of being regularly used within many philosophical debates, has not yet received in recent scholarship the philosophical scrutiny it deserves.

This book attempts to answer this need. It starts by acknowledging that there is tension, even signs of inconsistency, within the way many individuals, including philosophers, think about nature. In other words, it concedes that there is not just one concept of nature but many. Although many philosophers have a habitual respect towards all that science has to say about nature, and therefore assume that science can supply the one correct concept of nature, some are nevertheless persuaded that there is more to nature than what these sciences tell us. As to what this “more” might mean, however, there is no clear consensus. So this book aims to develop a framework for reflection. It outlines a new perspective on nature that avoids compartmentalization, a new perspective where conceptual issues, historical issues, and scientific implications are not kept separate from each other. As can be expected, ← 11 | 12 → because of the centrality of the concept under consideration, this project relates to various areas of current philosophical work, with a special emphasis on realism, mind, language, and scientific method.

I have tried to go beyond the conventional studies of the idea of nature in at least two major ways. First, I do not focus primarily on decontextualized philosophical argumentation but aim to display the relevance of the historical roots of the issues involved. There is little doubt that each of the various nuances of the concept of nature that emerged in the course of history, with the metaphysical and ethical presuppositions and consequences each had, has affected various broad philosophical themes. And an acknowledgement of this fact is capital. Secondly, I avoid a simple view of progress according to which scientific discoveries chip away at the conceptual scheme and correct it piecemeal. I try rather to recognize the complexity that arises from the fact that the concept of nature has a role not only in science but also in the everyday context of life, especially the context of agency. This book’s contribution therefore can be seen as an effort to relate scientific inquiry back to the lived experience that is proper to everyday self-understanding. To the extent that the modern scientific picture of the world has diverted considerably from the world we experience directly, we find ourselves today in the unfortunate situation where we are obliged to live in two incompatible worlds simultaneously: one factored out primarily in terms of persons, of relations between them, and of objects that are valued with respect to persons; the other factored out in terms of interlocking mathematical patterns made up of an enormous variety of equations and models. One of the tasks of philosophy is to detect the elements of conceptual confusion that arise because of this bifurcation of the world, and to work towards regaining consistency across the entire range of our human endeavor, both theoretical and practical. This task, of course, offers also the opportunity to obtain a clearer view of the range and limits of the disciplines of science and philosophy, thereby facilitating fruitful collaboration between them.

Before I launch the discussion, it is essential to indicate the main features of the method. A quick glance at the chapter headings will show that the overall method can be called metaphysical, but this designation ← 12 | 13 → needs careful elucidation. The aim is not to arrive at the correct description of some features of the world. Describing nature, its constituents and its workings, is the task of the empirical sciences, because these are the disciplines that determine causal links, often expressed mathematically as regularities between various measurable properties, in view of producing theories that represent the mind-independent world. Metaphysics, as traditionally conceived, did indeed share some important features with this task: it used to see itself as a way of deriving the hidden structure of things through the study of language and thinking. As the empirical sciences gained importance, however, this role of metaphysics was brought into question, and many philosophers started the total demise of this traditional part of philosophy. Such an outright and exhaustive denunciation, however, is certainly misguided, because it neglects the fact that at least one major ingredient of the traditional task of metaphysics simply cannot be eradicated. We cannot do away with the task of clarifying the rules of thought that are expressed by the correct use of words, words that are of key-importance in everyday life and also in empirical inquiry. The way concepts are related to one another determines how humans represent reality. So the analysis of concepts throws light on the norms of representation, which, in turn, are assumed by any empirical investigation. The analysis of a particular concept is in effect a description of the essential properties and relations of things that fall under that concept. An analysis, say, of the concept of color is a description of the properties and relations that situate color in our overall understanding. It will include statements like: “nothing can be red all over and green all over simultaneously.” In a nutshell, then, the kind of analysis engaged in here will seek to deliver the right conditions for something to be what we say it is. It delivers rules of meaning.

The study of nature in the following chapters is metaphysical in this sense. It is primarily of a conceptual kind, involving a systematic inquiry into a specific part of our conceptual scheme.2 It involves a ← 13 | 14 → study of what we mean by the word “nature”, of how we describe and explain things using the words “nature” and “natural”, and of the way the concept of nature, manifested by the use of these words and associated expressions, affects neighboring areas of our understanding, including those dealing with language and morality. So, as the title indicates, this book is primarily focused not on nature itself but on the thinking that goes on when we think about it. The inquiry will explore how nature-related words and expressions are connected to one another, and will seek to determine the form of explanation suitable to the domain of those words and expressions. As will become clear early on, the ways in which we think about nature have very general structural features of which we are often unaware. Just as speakers of a language can be unaware of the grammatical rules that determine their language, so also people who think and reason about nature can be unaware of the broad contours of that concept. The insistence on the central role of language should not be taken to imply that the philosophical project in this book is, in essence, just a sophisticated linguistic exercise. Sections of language can be studied in various ways. A grammatical or lexicographical study deals with semantic and syntactical relations between words and phrases. A philosophical study deals with the concepts that are manifested by words, by expressions, and by the complex network of relationships between their uses. Since thinking in large part is expressed linguistically, such a study of language is essentially an exploration of the concepts that determine the structural features of our worldview.

At this point, one might object in various ways. Isn’t this philosophical strategy placing too much emphasis on the current use of words? Is it not neglecting the fact that our conceptual scheme has been challenged, and is still being challenged, by empirical discoveries? Moreover, doesn’t this way of doing philosophy make this discipline too dependent on one particular language? What guarantee is there that the concept of nature we could determine from within the English language would be the same as, or even just related to, ← 14 | 15 → the one we would determine from Chinese or Ancient Greek? These questions are all very important. They have been debated at length during recent decades, and the last word has not been said about any of them. Nevertheless, it seems important here to indicate, however briefly, how they relate to the overall position expressed in the following chapters.

First of all, a word about the role of empirical inquiry. There is no doubt that, in the course of history, the way people have understood the world and their place within it has been challenged and corrected in various ways – the work of Copernicus has definitely changed the way we understand the heavens; the work of Darwin has definitely changed the way we understand the earth. This fact, however, does not mean that literally all propositions are liable to change. There are indeed philosophers, like W. V. O. Quine, who argue that all propositions form one continuous fabric, and that, as a consequence, any one of them, without distinction, can be adjusted when our theories are challenged by the deliverances of experience or experiment. These philosophers, however, underestimate the importance of the fact that truth-claims are not all of the same kind. Empirical truths, like “Whales are mammals”, are essentially different from conceptual truths, like “Every pebble has a shape”. The former are descriptive; the latter are normative. Conceptual truths are normative in the sense that they are an expression of the rules for the correct use of their constituent terms. When we say that a given empirical proposition is true, we mean that it describes how the world is. When we say that a given conceptual proposition is true, we mean that it expresses a genuine rule for the use of its constituent parts. Such rules form a network that determines both our everyday interaction with the world and the language in which scientific theories are articulated, interpreted, and evaluated. Pressure from new scientific discoveries can indeed make some conceptual rules change, but such changes show a character that differs radically from a change in scientific theory. The conceptual scheme, expressed in the use of words and expressions, is the conceptual platform we need for meaning to be possible at all. Changes of rules can never be drastic or localized. It is one of the main aims of this book to uncover how, as regards the concept of nature, ← 15 | 16 → although the meaning of some of its associated terms has been revised, the concept itself has retained much of its original form and function.3

Now to the question of diversity of cultures and languages. There are many everyday terms and expressions in one language that do not correspond exactly to similar expressions in another language. This fact indicates that the thinking itself that happens via the articulation of these expressions may differ in the same way as the expressions differ. Some ways of thinking in a specific area may be easier in one language than in another, for the simple reason that one language may have a richer vocabulary regarding that area. This should not surprise us. Even between individuals who speak the same language, there is a difference in linguistic skill that results in subtle differences in thinking skill. No one defends the idea that all humans think alike in every way, all the time. The idea that is worth considering and indeed defending is that any speaker of a language has a conceptual scheme that, in large part, is shared with other speakers. Moreover, the same can be said, to some extent, as regards not only speakers of one language but speakers in general, whatever their language. Given that many of the physical and biological features that characterize human beings, much of their typical behavior, and much of their habitat, are common to all human beings, it would be odd to deny that the conceptual background underpinning the various cultures and languages overlaps considerably. It is precisely that overlap that interests us here. This conceptual common background can, of course, be susceptible to pressure that can lead to change. This happens, as mentioned above, when grammatical rules come under strain due to empirical discoveries. It happens also when individuals using grammatical rules within one culture are exposed to some other culture that articulates the same sector of the conceptual scheme in a different way. Human cultural interaction tends to make the shift from one culture to another smoother. It thus tends to enlarge the overlap between peripherally different conceptual schemes. One needs ← 16 | 17 → to keep in mind, however, that, although such pressure for change at the level of conceptual grammar may arise, actual changes of such core grammatical structures are much less frequent than we often assume. When they happen, what we see is nearly always some added nuance of the words involved rather than a radical change in their meaning.

The above arguments give a fairly good picture of how philosophical inquiry in this book will proceed. We consider first our current conceptual scheme. The concept of nature is complex, and the best way to respect this complexity is to see this concept as a cluster-concept. For such concepts, there is a list of features regarded as paradigmatic for something that falls under those concepts. Hence, for instance, there are some paradigmatic features for a thing to be a bottle. If it is used to hold liquids, is made of glass or plastic, is portable, has a neck and a mouth, then it is a bottle. The concept of a bottle is associated with these characteristics, but none of them is totally indispensable. For instance, a bottle for advertising can be human-size, and thus not portable, and yet it is still a bottle, because the condition is that enough of the list of features be approximately satisfied. What counts as enough may itself be a vague matter. It may even change with time. Moreover, it is important to observe that not being able to give the exact, essential definition of a bottle does not stop us from saying with certainty that bottles differ from, say, dogs. Of course, there is in principle nothing that stops us from using the term “bottle” to refer to dogs. And yet, we do not do this; we know that, if we do, we would simply disengage ourselves from the established way of communicating. Even though there is some leeway as regards what counts as a bottle, communication would break down if the latitude of “bottle” were assumed to include dogs. Clearly, if the latitude of a concept is stretched too far, it becomes practically useless. So conceptual analysis must be sensitive to the fact that linguistic terms are both vague and useful.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
naturalism philosophy scientific inquiry
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 332 pp.

Biographical notes

Louis Caruana (Author)

Louis Caruana, S.J., obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is now Dean of Philosophy at the Gregorian University, Rome, and Research Associate of Heythrop College, University of London, where he used to be Reader. His published books and research papers deal with points of interaction between philosophy of science, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion.


Title: Nature: Its Conceptual Architecture
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