Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto
Federica Gregoratto, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault,
Arvi Särkelä and Italo Testa
The Critical Naturalism Manifesto is a common platform put forward as a basis for
broad discussions around the problems faced by critical theory today. We are living in
a time, e.g. a pandemic time, when present-day challenges exert immense pressure on
social critique. This means that models of social critique should not be discussed from
the point of view of their normative justication or political eects alone, but also with
reference to their ability to tackle contemporary problematic issues (like the dismantle-
ment of the welfare state, the environmental catastrophe, and the sanitary crisis). With
this manifesto, we invite varying practices of philosophical, artistic and scientic social
critique to take seriously the enormous challenges our societies face with regard to
inner and outer nature.
Nature, Society, Critique, Crisis, Future
Krisis 42 (1):108-124.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto
Federica Gregoratto, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault,
Arvi Särkelä and Italo Testa
This manifesto is an invitation. It invites varying practices of philosophical, artistic, and
scientic social critique to take seriously the enormous challenges our societies face
with regard to inner and outer nature. It has three parts. The rst part consists of the
eleven theses of Critical Naturalism. The second part is conceptual. It identies the
historical crises and catastrophes that Critical Naturalism seeks to respond to, dispels
the prejudices against naturalism in contemporary critical thought, sketches out the
notions of nature and naturalism, and anchors Critical Naturalism in the history of
Critical Theory. We understand this history, initially, as that of the Frankfurt School,
which must then be expanded and enriched by other approaches to social critique. The
last part consists of fragments for models and projects of Critical Naturalism. They are
exemplary sketches of the varying ways to practice naturalist social critique. The hope
is that the list will be extended by those who want to join us.
Section One: The Theses
Nature, whose concept and reality once seemed overcome, returns by force of its
own repression as a signature of our present historical situation.
Nature spilling over, populations spilling over, hospitals spilling over, climate anxiety
spilling over: The symptoms of the repression become unbearable. Yet, catastrophes
do not mean social transformation. They can be perpetuated by administration.
2020 might continue.
Concepts and theories of nature are not innocent. They participate in bringing
the disasters forth and contribute to perpetuating them. A rational response to the
current catastrophes must include attempts to grasp both these new realities of life
and the dead ways of thinking that sustain them. Such has been Critical Theory’s
claim. Critical Naturalism carries it into our times.
The so-called naturalistic fallacy is hardly a greater peril than global warming,
metabolic rift, and zoonotic spillover. On the contrary, a social philosophy which
abstracts from nature is a mirror image of the lethal practical illusion of indepen-
dence from nature.
Independence from nature and domination of nature are two sides of the same
coin. There is no emancipation without liberation within nature.
Most Critical Theory has hitherto only denaturalized the social in various ways,
the point is also to renaturalize it. Relations of domination in society are embodied
materially, biologically, technologically, habitually, and institutionally, and so is the
resistance to them.
Normativist critical theory has reconstructed the norms of social critique, naturalist
critical theory pushes forward. It reconstructs social life, especially the relation of
societies to their natural environments and constituents, and it understands itself as
part and parcel of social transformation.
Natural (inter)subjective determinations – drives, impulses, aects – can operate as
critical forces of liberation. Even if always socialized, they are not innitely mal-
leable and they can work against encrusted social norms and structures. Critical
Naturalism cares as much for our natural determinations as for our dispositions to
redirect them.
Nature has contingent and plural histories. It is geared to mutability and variation.
Critical Naturalism acknowledges nature as ordered and disordered, in between
stability and precariousness. It has a transient character.
Traditional naturalism’s illusion of the One Nature of the One Science mirrors
the destructive tendency of capitalist societies to reduce nature to resource, and
it ignores the irreducible plurality of both science and our everyday and aesthetic
experiences of nature. It also impoverishes the ethnographic and cultural variety
of experiences of nature. This plurality is a resource for naturalistic social critique.
Critical Naturalism harbors the utopian drive of reimagining the relationship
between nature and society. It calls for articulation of, and experimentation with,
human social forms of life that can be sustained and freely armed by their individ-
ual members.
Section Two: The Need for Critical Naturalism
Historical diagnoses and theoretical obstacles
We are living in a time when the challenges of the present exert immense pressure on
social critique. Notably, this means that models of social critique should not be discussed
from the point of view of their normative justication or political eects alone, but also
with reference to their ability to tackle contemporary challenges. The dismantlement
of the welfare state, the environmental catastrophe, and the healthcare crisis are three
of the most pressing issues of our time, and each of them can be addressed separately
by specic critical models, but as long as they are addressed separately, the reactions to
them are doomed to suer from political one-sidedness.
A rst historical diagnosis, concerning the neoliberal attacks against the welfare
state, can be articulated within the framework of a theory of social freedom. As Axel
Honneth has argued in Freedom’s Right (Honneth 2015) a welfare state is required to
institutionalize the conditions of social freedom. As such, the project of a critical theory
of social freedom is clearly relevant. However, this approach is exclusively society-cen-
tered, and thus not able to capture what is at stake in the current environmental disaster
and care crisis. Moreover, it draws, at least in Honneth’s case, on a Durkheimian con-
ception of the social as a sui generis reality, a conception that makes it almost impossible
to interconnect the social conditions of freedom with the society-nature relationship.
A second way of articulating the critique of the dismantlement of the welfare
state is presented by social reproduction theory (SRT), as seen for instance in Nancy
Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi’s Capitalism (Fraser and Jaeggi 2018) and in the Feminism for the 99
% Manifesto (Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser 2019). In a Polanyian way, Neoliberalism
is here depicted as an attack on the conditions of social life, that is, not only on the welfare
state as a condition for social freedom, but on the very conditions of the reproduction
of social life. This is important since this attack is indeed experienced everywhere on
our planet, and not only in countries where welfare institutions have regulated social
reproduction. Indeed, social life cannot reproduce itself without reproducing its relations
to natural environments, and without biological reproduction in the sense of procre-
ation of humans by humans. Insofar as the SRT approach considers society-environ-
ment relations, it does support ecosocialist and ecofeminist projects. The problem with
this approach, however, is that the concept of “reproduction” is dened through the
contrast between “productive” and “reproductive” work, and between “societal” and
“social reproduction” (where “societal” refers to the reproduction of the capitalist system
as a whole, and “social” to the activities, attitudes, emotions, and relationships directly
involved in maintaining life; see Brenner and Laslett 1991). What is required today is the
overcoming of both these dualistic and schematic distinctions. We must reconstruct the
reciprocal impact of productive and reproductive work in novel ways. Furthermore, we
must investigate the deep and intimate relationship not only between societal and social
dynamics, but also, systematically, between such dynamics and their natural environments
(focusing also on how these environments condition societal and social dimensions).
The second historical diagnosis concerns the environmental crisis. Here, the tradi-
tion of critical theory can attempt an endemic articulation by drawing upon the Marxist
notion of “metabolic rift”. This concept suggests that the interactions between human
societies and their natural environments are analogous with the metabolic processes of
animal bodies. According to this approach, the reciprocal transfers between societies
and their environments are depicted as metabolic processes that can break down. The
result is the destruction of the social forms of life that depend on it. Here, the main issue
touches upon the environmental conditions of social life. When societies overuse the
resources of their natural environments, or when they eject too much waste into the
environment, these can no longer reproduce or reintegrate the waste. On this diagnosis,
it is important to consider how the processes of societal reproduction are organized: the
dynamics of neoliberal capitalism, as well as the types of consumption associated with
contemporary social inequalities, are the main culprits (see Foster 2020; 2021).
However, the problems, in our era of extreme inequalities, exceed those to do
with the metabolic exchanges with natural environments. This becomes painfully clear
with the third historical diagnosis, that of “the era of pandemics”. Indeed, the fact that new
viruses emerge ever more frequently and that they are becoming ever more dangerous
is linked with the contemporary overexploitation of natural environments, as stated by
metabolic rift theories (see Malm 2020); yet it is not reducible to that. The temporality
of the diagnosis cast in terms of an “era of pandemics” is namely dierent from that
cast in terms of an “environmental crisis”: whereas global warming is catastrophic for
its medium-term impact on sea level, meteorological disasters, biodiversity, and mass
migration, the healthcare crisis creates a state of emergency here and now. The content
of this diagnosis is also dierent from the previous one since it sheds a dierent light
on society-nature relations: the pandemic makes it painfully evident that despite social-
ization human individuals remain natural organisms, belonging to the same realm as all
other species. Humans are just as vulnerable to “zoonotic spillover” as other species are.
Moreover, the healthcare crisis is intimately linked with the destruction of the welfare
state. Dismantling the public health system is a very bad idea in general, but it is even
worse under pandemic circumstances, where it leads to outright global emergencies. It
is striking how poorly equipped critical theory is for articulating this third diagnosis.
Critical theory has rarely been concerned with issues of health in its critical models,
and when it has, this has been only in terms of mental health. Even when elaborating
on the idea of ‘social pathology’, pathologies in the literal medical meaning of the term
have rarely been given serious consideration.
Most of the proponents of the above-mentioned critical models agree that
from a political point of view, the conjunction of these three diagnoses calls for some
kind of socialism with an ecological focus as a remedy to the neoliberal destruction
of the welfare state, to metabolic rifts, and to the healthcare consequences of environ-
mental overexploitation. The contemporary crises deepen not only class inequalities
and domination, but also gender and racial inequalities, as well as inequalities between
rich countries with comparatively ecient healthcare sectors, vaccination capacities, and
highly destructive environmental impact on the one hand, and poor countries more
vulnerable to crises they are not responsible for on the other. The demand is for a
socialism with a feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist focus as well. These political
desiderata can of course be articulated in dierent strategic and programmatic ways.
Their justication depends on political arguments as well as on sociological and eco-
logical facts rather than philosophical reection. Nevertheless, philosophical reection
can also play a role, and one of the useful tasks in this respect is to draw together
the ontological, anthropological, and social-theoretical implications of the three above
mentioned diagnoses in a consistent way that can be informative of, and experimented
in, political practice. Critical Naturalism is the label we use to denote this kind of
philosophical reection.
The challenges of our times call for the Critical Naturalist approach. Importantly,
they also put in serious doubt a number of accepted assumptions in various strands of
contemporary critical social science and philosophy. Let us mention some of the most
obvious ones:
Abstract social constructivism. According to abstract social constructivism, health should
be analyzed as a social construct. One should avoid referring to it from a critical point
of view, as that would mean falling into the traps of biopower. By contrast, Critical
Naturalism addresses health as well as the body as both social constructs and something
irreducible to social construction. When biological organisms are transformed into
social and cultural agents able to express and address organic problems by means of
social norms, these problems do not thereby cease to be biological problems. Critical
Naturalism rejects the symmetrical pitfalls of a social constructivism that reduces society
to social construction and abstracts from its relatedness to nature on the one hand, and
a biological reductionism on the other.
Technologicalism. Some forms of social critique based on abstract constructivist accounts
end up conating criticism with the search for technological solutions. For sure, repur-
posing technologies for emancipative ends is a valuable strategy for progressive politics.
Techno-utopian agendas such as the Accelerationist Manifesto (Williams and Srnicek
2013) have rightly diagnosed the sense of the future having been erased from political
imagination in the last decades. However, by not considering the dialectics between
society and nature, such positions eventually endorse a form of articialism in con-
ceiving the role of technology that is both ontologically incoherent and ecologically
dangerous. The future is already here, and it is accelerating in a direction that dreams
of collective self-mastery through technological acceleration will not account for. The
abstract, disembodied character of rationalist social engineering implemented by neo-
liberalism is precisely part of the problem.
Articialism. Abstract constructivist models of social emancipation, also shared by post-
humanists and accelerationist feminists such as the Xenofeminist Manifesto (Cuboniks
2018), conceive of social emancipation as a matter of incrementally bootstrapping
ourselves into articial existence. As such, they are essentially anti-naturalist, believing
that we can simply leave nature behind. This is unsustainable already with regard to
the ontology of artifacts, which in order to be enacted in the world must be materi-
ally embodied, situated in the environment, and adapted to our bodily habits. Social
criticism has rightly denounced the ideological nature of commonsense essentialist
naturalism, which deems unnatural anyone who does not conform to posited biological
or theological norms, and thinks of nature as invariant. However, this does not do
away with naturalness. The Xenofeminist slogan “if nature is unjust, change nature”
should not be taken ad absurdum. Critical Naturalism understands naturalness precisely
as something open to change and to plural orders of transformation, or even as what
allows change! However, this does not mean that nature can change indenitely, that it
can be manipulated without limits.
Flat ontologism. It is tempting to combat the modern denial of the natural conditions of
social and human life by rejecting the society-nature distinction altogether. According
to Bruno Latour, the very idea of society depends on such denial. But rejecting the
social-natural divide should not lead to a rejection of the social-natural distinction and to
relinquishing the very concepts of nature and society1. Such conation of nature and
society ends up missing the critical potential of their relative non-identity. Here again,
Critical Naturalism is an attempt to avoid symmetrical pitfalls: society is neither a reality
sui generis, essentially detached from nature, nor merely a set of specic networks with
other natural entities.
Conation of naturalism with ideology. A powerful source of worries concerning naturalism
within contemporary critical social science and philosophy stems from the fact that “nat-
uralism” is conated with an ideological formation that seeks to justify social inequality
and domination by an appeal to nature. The suspicion is that any reference to nature
in a context where social critique is at stake runs the risk of involving such ideological
justication. One good example is the famous distinction between “sex” and “gender”,
understood as a distinction between biological (sex) and social (gender) denitions of
human beings. Initially, this distinction had the critical function of distinguishing social
norms, which vary historically and geographically, from the biological descriptions of
sexual dierence. What was at stake was the struggle against the ideological justica-
tion of these norms by presenting them as derived from natural dierences. In other
words, this distinction was initially a critique of ideological naturalism. Judith Butler
then famously contended that the biological distinction between the sexes actually
also amounts to a normative construction, and thus to ideological naturalism (Butler
1990). However, as feminist biologists teach us (e.g. Fausto-Sterling 2012), studying the
nature of our sexual bodies leads us to discover a rich range of possibilities, which goes
well beyond the simple gender dualism (cis-male vs. cis-female). Similarly, studying
the nature of our sexual desires points us to a rich range of possibilities that goes well
beyond the heteronormative regimes. Trans, transitioning, non-binary, third gendered,
queer, etc. bodies can be seen both as natural variations and as social, human, interac-
tional projects or, as in a Deweyan sense, experimentations. The same goes for gay, lesbian,
queer, non-monogamous, polyamorous, kinky, anarchist or otherwise non-conventional
forms of sexual, intimate, erotic encounters and relationships.
We are not convinced by arguments for dropping all references to nature in
social sciences or social and political philosophy as these would allegedly amount to
ideological naturalism. These arguments render any form of naturalism incompatible
with the very project of a critical theory of society. On the contrary, there are good
reasons to believe that such reference plays a pivotal and inalienable role in contemporary
critical theories. Even when gestures and practices of denaturalization are still needed,
an understanding of the nature of our bodies can have a role in debunking prejudices,
challenging widespread assumptions, and thus contributing to changing norms and
structures of oppression. For instance, comparing racialized groups from a biological
point of view can be a powerful weapon for dismantling any justication for oppression,
discrimination, or even dierentiations based on socially constructed notions of “race”.
On this point – that race does not exist biologically – every social constructionist
appears to be a critical naturalist too! Regarding disability and aging, embodied and
extended cognition – a broadly naturalist approach, sometimes also critical (see e.g.
Gallagher 2020) can show how institutions, norms, and thus domination are incorpo-
rated in bodily habits and skills and create embodied exclusions and inclusions.
Critical Naturalism, as we can see, is critically sensitive to the dierent issues
at stake in domination based on gender, race, and disability. It doesn’t come with a
pre-packaged solution for all of them. It suggests approaching these areas without the
nature-culture and mind-body dualisms that have long blocked critical inquiry.
Nature and Naturalism
If the very notion of Critical Naturalism sounds paradoxical to many, this is not only
because of the above-mentioned assumptions and prejudices in critical social science
and philosophy. Another reason is a set of conceptual worries about “nature” and
Some of the worries about “nature” relate to the fact that it is thought to be
legitimate, for social sciences and philosophy, to focus on what makes contemporary
societies irreducible to their natural conditions and components. Society should be
thought of independently of nature, so the thinking goes. The validity of this claim
depends on a particular way of dening “nature”, “society” and “irreducibility”.
In ordinary language, the meaning of the term “nature” is often linked to
the need to distinguish things: nature-convention (rules and norms), nature-culture,
nature-history, nature-artifacts, and nature-nurture. It makes sense to consider all
these distinctions intersecting and together comprising the nature-society distinction.
Whereas such distinctions work ne in most situated language games, they should
not be hypostatized, that is, posited as xed metaphysical divides. For one thing, there
is culture and social life in non-human nature too. And conversely, in some language
games it makes sense to describe “human societies” as part of “nature”.
The distinction between nature and human society can be understood in two
dierent ways: thinking of nature and society either as two separated realities, or as
various aspects of the same reality. Thinking of them as two separate realities is not
feasible since it would then hardly be conceivable that human societies have natural
elements and conditions. Such a conception also suggests that the nature-society dis-
tinction is analogous to another distinction involved in the ordinary uses of the word
“nature”: the natural-supernatural distinction. Critical Naturalism rejects this outdated
metaphysical dualism, i.e., all views that make a categorical distinction between natural
and supernatural realms of existence.
Critical Naturalism also opposes dening and analyzing societies merely in
terms of their allegedly distinctive characteristics (rules, norms, culture, artifacts, nurture),
without considering their relations with the naturalness from which they might be dis-
tinguished. In other words, Critical Naturalism does not reject all distinctions between
nature and convention, nature and history, nature and culture, nature and artifacts, or
nature and nurture. Rather it strives to bridge the gap between the distinguished terms
and use them critically, conscious of their role in our natural and cultural forms of life.
In this respect, what matters is not so much the question as to whether or not, or to
what respect and degree, human societies are natural, but rather a twofold fact: rstly,
there is a continuity between human forms of life and non-human forms of life, as well
as between forms of life and non-living natural phenomena; secondly, these continuities
are present within human forms of social life.
“Continuity”, in this sense, is a concept coined by John Dewey, a natural-
ist philosopher whose signicance for critical theory is now widely acknowledged.
Continuity means refusal of both reductionism and dualism. In fact, Critical Naturalism
recognizes a plurality of forms of continuity: genetic continuity, relational continuity,
and dynamic continuity. Genetic continuity is a point made by evolutionary theory.
Living beings have come about through a series of transformations of inanimate beings,
and human forms of life are a product of a series of transformations of non-human
forms of life.
Relational continuity is a socio-ontological claim: social entities cannot be
abstracted from their natural environments, and their relations to these environments
are not only external but also internal. For instance, human labor activities do not only
mediate between societies and their natural environments, but also structure social life,
shaping both the natural environments and the inner nature of the workers.
Most crucial for critical theory is the third continuity, namely dynamic con-
tinuity. According to this idea, continuity also includes constraints on convention,
culture, nature, artifacts, and nurture. In present times, it should be all too obvious that
healthcare crises would not occur were our biological naturalness not an inescapable
constraint on us, or that ecological crises would not occur were our natural environ-
ments limitlessly malleable. It should not be provocative to point out that artifacts are
produced in conformity with mechanical and chemical laws, and that social individ-
uals whose behavior is mediated by conventions and cultural symbols remain animals
subjected to death and disease. And yet it is taken to be controversial to claim that the
human body is not a tabula rasa where culture leaves its print, or that drives, and psychic
defenses are deeply rooted in the history of our species and still produce structuring
eects in contemporary culture. Evolutionary naturalism, as well as Freud’s drive theory,
inicted wounds to human narcissism by highlighting that humans remain animals.
Aligned with technological optimism, social and cultural conservatism, and traditional
dualistic thinking, human narcissism has proved to be strong enough to patch over these
wounds. Critical Naturalism does not provide rst aid for blows to fantasies of human
omnipotence. It cares for vulnerable, embodied, interdependent humans in natural and
social environments over the long term.
Further worries about “nature” have to do with its widespread association
with the ideas of eternal laws of physical phenomena, invariable forms of the living
species, reied genus concepts, and unchanging structures of human nature. Thinking
of societies in their relation to their natural conditions and constituents would then be
incompatible with any project of radical social transformation. But as contemporary
physical cosmology shows, the universe is a result of processes. Biology tells us that
organic species should not be understood as unchanging structures, but as changing
patterns of adaptation to, and adjustment of, changing environments. Contemporary
philosophy of science can therefore support a processual naturalism, in which nature is
seen as composed of interacting processes generating innovations rather than of phe-
nomena subjected to universal and unchanging regularities (see Dupré 2015; 2018).
Critical Naturalism draws lessons from these accounts. It rejects the static conception
of nature that identies nature with a set of unchanging laws and species, and takes
nature to involve both stability and precariousness, to be a mixture of necessity and
contingency, ever in the making.
Naturalism and critical theory
Critical Naturalism aims to be critical in the sense of the traditions of critical social
theory. If one understands critical theory in the broadest sense, these traditions can be
specied by a focus on what is going wrong in our societies, and by attempts to par-
ticipate in shaping social practices. They contrast, rstly, with a traditional conception
of theory where the focus is on the “rst principles” of knowledge, the denition of
the most fundamental traits of reality, or the rationality of the real and an attempt to
discern what is irrational in a specic historical situation. They contrast also with a
conception of theory that has its aim in itself, truth being an end in itself, and replaces
this with a conception of theory as a tool for making the world less wrong. Within the
Frankfurt School tradition, this conception of critical theory was famously articulated
in Horkheimer’s article “Critical Theory and Traditional Theory”, as well as by Marcuse,
Adorno, and others. But the conception can be traced back even further to Hegel
and Marx, who both historicized philosophical theorizing and emphasized a close and
reective connection between theory and practice. These two moves also played a deci-
sive role for Dewey who claimed that “philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a
device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated
by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men”. Such a conception of critical
theory is also illustrated nowadays, outside contemporary contributions rooted in the
Frankfurt School tradition, in various branches of critical thought, be they inspired by
Foucault (for instance in discussions about biopolitics), by pragmatism (for instance in
discussions on racial integration and epistemic injustices; see Anderson 2013; Medina
2013), or by Marx (such as in the metabolic rift theories), or be they feminist theories,
theories elaborated in critical race studies, critical disability studies, or critical environ-
mental studies.
In the history of critical theory the type of critical naturalism we are advocating
has often played a crucial, even if nowadays neglected, role. Since Hegel is one of the
starting points of the traditions of critical theory – both Marx and Dewey having
started their intellectual lives as Hegelians, and the Frankfurt School trying to synthesize
Hegel, Marx and Freud – it is reasonable to start these brief historical remarks with him.
Contemporary critical theories inspired by Hegel2 generally read him as an anti-natu-
ralist philosopher. They typically emphasize his deconstructions of the theory-practice,
individual-society, and moral-politics dualisms, without taking seriously the fact that he
also criticized the nature-spirit dualism. Hegel presented this latter criticism from an
anthropological as well as a socio-ontological point of view.
From the anthropological point of view, Hegel criticized the mind-body
dualism and emphasized that humans have both a “rst” and a “second nature”: their
internal nature is transformed by the process of socialization in the social world which
is organized by social norms that are a result of a historical process. A similar anthro-
pology played a decisive role for Dewey, for whom human nature is characterized by
a set of plastic impulses, resulting from natural selection and environmental pressure,
as well as by habits or second nature, which direct these impulses. Important for the
critical naturalist orientation here is the idea that even though impulses are always
socially channeled, contradictions can occur between the impulses and the social norms
which condition habit formation, and such contradictions can critically contribute to
undermining the norms. One nds a similar critical naturalist anthropology in the early
Frankfurt School reception of Freud’s drive theory. Though the drives are plastic and
socially channeled, they are also repressed, and their repression can retroact in various
ways on social life, both by contributing to pathological developments (for instance by
generating the “authoritarian personalities” analyzed by Adorno) as well as by dening
emancipatory potentials (for instance in Marcuse).
From a socio-ontological point of view, Hegel already contended that society
should not be analyzed as a normative realm disconnected from external nature and
the internal nature of individuals. What denes the sociality of human life is a transfor-
mation of the rst nature of human organisms into a second nature, which also makes
individual and collective freedom compatible. Furthermore, for a society to reproduce
itself, it must satisfy the needs of its members via a transformation of external nature
operated by a system of division of labor (a “system of needs” in Hegel’s terminology).
This latter ideal is taken up by Marx who denes work as the “metabolism between man
and nature”, or “between society and nature”, with reference to the possibility of “met-
abolic rifts”. Similar ideas are expressed by Dewey, who denes the economic process as
a human transformation of the biological process of mutual adaptation and adjustment
of organism and environment. In various ways, the relations between societies and their
natural environments are also crucial in the rst generation of the Frankfurt School.
The reference to these relations is loaded with both negative and utopian dimensions.
For instance, in the young Adorno’s text “The idea of Natural-History”, the notion
of second nature has an ontological connotation, expressing the transient and plural
character of naturality: “nature” acquires historical contingency. Acknowledging this
character makes it possible to give expression to those aspects of fragmentariness and
appearance that are proper to the second-natural being of human social life and that
are simultaneously concealed and amplied by reication. For Adorno, the key concept
for a critical social philosophy that makes this task its own proves to be that of “second
nature”: it allows us to think of a social concept of nature and a natural concept of history.
Here, second nature brings to light that reciprocal reference of nature and history, that
contamination between the two poles of the eccentric trajectory of human life which
thwarts any attempt both to hold them fast in isolation and to reduce one to the other.
The history of critical theory is a source of inspiration for Critical Naturalism
in many other respects as well. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno
highlighted that domination of nature results in domination in society. However, they
did not consider that the domination of nature could result in the kind of natural
feedback eects we are currently experiencing in the form of environmental disasters
and public health crises. Alfred Schmidt put emphasis on Marx’s theory of the soci-
ety-nature relation, and on the concept of “metabolism between society and nature”
(Schmidt 2013). Schmidt also demanded that Feuerbach’s sensuous naturalism be taken
seriously by critical theory (Schmidt 1977). A similar point was made by Honneth
and Joas (1989) by now four decades ago, before they elaborated their less naturalistic
mature programs.
Critical naturalist motives have not played a major role in the recent devel-
opments of critical theory. Critical Naturalism is a learning process. It aims to bring
these motives back to the fore, in a form adjusted to the challenges of our time.
Notably, it must overcome the Eurocentric bias of critical theory and outline diverse,
non-reied, multiple, complex ideas and practices of nature and naturalness. Critical
Naturalists must practice self-criticism and avoid the traps of colonizing and imperialist
dynamics. Critical theorists have already made some resources available for a richer
and more inclusive approach to nature: in particular, Adorno’s notion of “mimesis”, his
critique of identity thinking, and his essayistic and micrological methods (indebted to
Walter Benjamin), as well as Dewey’s idea of pluralistic, multi-layered and changeable
natures, and his fallibilist method of inquiry, are promising starts in this respect. Critical
Naturalism’s concepts remain to be hybridized, aected, integrated, revised.
Section Three: Fragments
Critical Naturalism is not a theory. Like the nature it refers to, and the forms of life
it critically engages with, it appears in plural forms. This last section of the Manifesto
exemplies directions of Critical Naturalism by sketching out some of its models and
intents in fragmentary form. The list of fragments is open-ended and contains an implicit
invitation to grow in number and depth and extend all the way into the fragmentary
experience of everyday life.
The task of critical theory
“What is the most central task for critical theory today?”“Who are we to say?
Philosophers always come late. They don’t write manifestos. It will be up to the readers
of tomorrow to say what was our most important task today. Bad question, right
answer. Yet the current catastrophic relationship between nature and culture has ren-
dered the right answer impossible and the bad question necessary. As things stand today,
the old answer has become ominous. It might well be that there will be no readers
of philosophy tomorrow. To contribute to preventing that from happening, to help
achieve natural and cultural conditions, which allow for humanity to survive and to
care for its forms of life is, if not the most central, then certainly an imperative task for
critical theory today.
Nature, culture and care
Culture means care, it derives from the Latin colere. Adorno once remarked that this
colere originally meant the activity of the peasant, the agricola, that is, a certain way of
relating to nature, the care for nature. The fact that we set dierent relations to nature, that
we have dierent forms of life, dierent ways of caring for nature within and without
us, means a chance for us, by mutual criticism, to come to terms with ourselves, to grow by
reconciling ourselves with something dierent than ourselves. Culture means care of
nature. Critique means care of the relationship between culture and nature. Critique
must not be thought of as a judgment, but as a coming to terms with oneself and each
other as natural and cultural beings. Critique promises a non-violent mode of cultural
transformation, the possibility of transforming our lives with care.
It is written in the face of our current form of life that it is failing in this regard.
We nd ourselves in a new historical constellation of nature/culture: a contradiction
between the continuation of our capitalist form of life and the survival of humanity
as we know it. And we nd ourselves completely unable to react collectively to this
enormous challenge ahead of us. The fact that global warming has reached a point of
no return means that the ecological disaster that we are facing is not merely a crisis. It
is a permanent catastrophe, a mutation of our relationship with the environment, of our
culture. We simply have no choice but to permanently alter our relationship with nature.
How should students and teachers of philosophy react? There are two options:
we can either ignore the fact that global warming has reached the point of no return,
that is, try to suppress the fact that our culture will change, try to, as it were, “engineer”
ourselves into a new form of life, or we can go about this change reectively, react to
the disaster creatively, go through our mutation with care.
One such attempt at a creative reaction has been to create a completely new
vocabulary for nature/culture. Critical Naturalists agree that we need a radically new
beginning. However, a radically new beginning does not mean suppressing the past.
Such reactions end with implausible and abstract vocabularies that cannot be continued
in ordinary language and guide everyday life. They will be either powerless or violent
in the face of prevailing habits and customs. Therefore, Critical Naturalists believe that
suppressing the past isn’t radical at all, it is supercial. Instead, Critical Naturalism pro-
ceeds negatively, by a critique of what is given, the prevailing forms of life. Reacting
with care means being sensitive to the needs and powers our form of life has developed,
it involves redigesting our history from the perspective of the contemporary disasters.
No culture can be created from scratch. New forms of life are assembled from old forms
of life. We can only react creatively from pre-existing habits by cultivating those habits
further and redirecting them from the point of view of the disaster and the objective
possibilities at hand.
Niche constructors
As a particular animal species, humans are distinguished by the fact that work is the
mediator of their adaptation to their natural environment. Work can fulll this mediating
function only with a division of labor which involves a stock of technical knowledge
and norms of cooperation – even in cases where division of labor is structured by
social domination. This also means that, from an evolutionary point of view, work plays
both productive and reproductive roles: it is both a productive activity of transforming
materials into consumption goods that can satisfy our vital needs and make our human
forms of life ecologically sustainable, and it is the reproductive activity of educating to
social norms and technical knowledge, as well as providing the services required by the
cooperative structure of society that has made human forms of life possible.
Productive work consists of uses of natural environments in order to satisfy a
set of biological needs, but it also produces transformations in natural environments,
turning them into partly articial ones, which then generate new needs and new uses of
natural environments. Representations, including representations of nature, are crucial
for orienting productive work and therefore crucial for the quality of the human
eect on human environments too. All of this means that, more than any other animal,
humans are niche constructors. Nowadays, the implications of this anthropological fact
are denoted by the term “anthropocene”, even if the problem with the anthropocene
is not the specicity of human niche construction, but the forms it has taken since the
emergence of capitalism.
Work can either sustain, as in foraging societies, or destroy these environments,
as under capitalism. The challenge is to transform destructive work into sustaining work
without returning to foraging. What is required for tackling this challenge is not only
a critical theory of capitalism – the existing economic system of production for prot
rather than for use, and instrumentalization of social cooperation to benet the rich at
the expense of the poor. Additionally, there is a need for a critical theory of our uses
of the natural and articial environments, a reactualized theory of “use value”, as well
as for a critical theory of the norms of cooperation, a theory that would question the
allocation of wages and prestige, something which is currently far from being based on
the ecological and social value of the professions. What is demanded is also a critical
theory of work that undermines the hegemonic denition of work as a consumption
of raw materials, including one’s body, rather than as a fruitful use of these material
and bodily instrumentalities. In fact, this hegemonic denition provides an ideological
justication both for the exploitation of nature and for the exploitation of workers.
Reconstruction and experimentation
When intellectuals no longer have the opportunity to be organic intellectuals of a
massive social movement, yet they still want to be sincere, the task remaining for them
is chiey critical. Hence, the philosophical industry in critical theory is today mass pro-
ducing norms and models of social critique, and a great many empirical inquiries from
a critical sociological point of view. Although their value should not be underestimated,
for naturalist critical theory the various normative, epistemological, and empirical con-
tributions to social critique are not enough. What matters is also the reconstruction of
the criticized state of aairs. Our relations to our natural and articial environments,
our drives, our habits of conduct and thought, our systems of institutions, all have to
be reconstructed. Working towards these goals requires elaborating new critical models
which take into account the ecological, technological, and economic constraints at play
in our relations to our natural and articial environments, as well as the anthropological
constraints dened by our psyche and the inertia of our habits, and the sociological
constraints bearing on the practice of social transformation. What is required is devel-
oping models of social critique that are also models of social experimentation, models
that are intimately linked with knowledge of these constraints and with practical imag-
ination of solutions.
Beyond ideological naturalism and ideological antinaturalism
Theorists and theories have a tendency to overshoot. The exaggeration has a tendency
to become habitual and unreective over time and with academic socialization. Critical
theory is especially prone to this process of ossication as it comforts itself by the assurance
of being “critical” by default: what begins as critique turns easily into dogma. The critique
of “naturalism”, “essentialism”, “naturalistic fallacy” and so on has become an automatic
reex to an extent that it is an obstacle for addressing global warming, metabolic rift,
zoonotic spillover, and the myriads of ways in which culture is essentially related to
nature. Whereas the evils of social thought implicated in, or explicitly preaching, ideolog-
ical forms of naturalism are well-known and forever something to be vigilant about, the
current situation forces a clear-headed assessment of social thought which abstracts from
nature, thereby forming a mirror image and contributing to the lethal practical illusion of
independence from nature. All of the original worries concerning naturalism need to be
revisited without prejudice, so as to achieve a perspective which is neither ideologically
naturalist, nor ideologically anti-naturalist, but that of Critical Naturalism.
Freedom and life
Freedom is an inescapable ideal for critical and emancipatory thought and action, but
the dominant models of freedom are at best inadequate for grasping the constitutive
connectedness of humanity with nature, and at worst complicit with the current crisis
or ongoing catastrophe. The concept of freedom as autonomy or self-determination is
in this regard no less problematic than the simpler concept of negative freedom: it easily
lends itself to the hubristic fantasy of independence from nature. Such independence can
never be actually given, and practical attempts to bring it about can only take the form
of increasingly drastic attempts to dominate nature, to keep its irreducibly independent
dynamics and indierence to human concerns at bay and out of mind. The psychoan-
alytic lesson about the folly of attempts to force internal nature into submission apply
even more so in the relation with external nature. So does its lesson about freedom:
the abstract concept of freedom as independence or abstraction from what necessarily
determines us is self-subversive and destructive when applied in practice. The only real,
concrete form of freedom with regard to what we are constitutively related to and thus
determined by is reconciliation that acknowledges its otherness but overcomes the
hostility in the relationship. It is this unity of dierence and unity, or being with oneself
in otherness—to use the famous Hegelian formula—that characterizes the ideal of a
free relation of a human individual with her body, as well as of a human community
with external nature. As processes of life never cease, freedom in this sense is never given
once and for all, but is always a task to dene the specications of, and to aspire to. If
we fail in this task, we will die out. As Hegel reminds us: the ends of freedom cannot be
separate from the ends of life.
Affects and critique
The emotional and aective dimensions of our habits, institutions, norms, and practices
are of crucial importance, both for philosophy and for life. Living, social, human and
nonhuman beings are shaped and driven by non-cognitive, non- or pre-intentional,
non-linguistic, non- or pre-rational aects. Beings try to articulate aects in specic
emotions (fear, hope, joy, anger, love, hate, guilt, shame, enthusiasm, etc.). Aective and
emotional aspects of individual and collective selves, of their bonds and associations, of
their interactions with the environments, are not only a fact – they can also contribute
to imaginative, critical, and transformative practice. Critical Naturalism, contrary to most
positions in the contemporary landscape of critical theory and social philosophy, tries to
understand the imaginative, critical, and transformative dynamics of aects and emotions.
Aective experiences are vague, incomprehensible, uncontrollable, inchoate,
confusing, at least in many phases of experience. As such, they can signal a non-
alignment between our present and future selves, between given orders (patterns of
action, meanings, values, norms) and what these orders could be and become, how
habits are disrupted and must be readjusted. But they can also be destructive, harboring
anti-social forces. Emotions, for their part, are conscious signs of breaks and disruptions
– they express awareness of how things should not be, or how they could be dierent.
We are sensual beings in the sense of the young Marx and of Dewey: our task
is to explore the critical and transformative powers of the aects and emotions that all
our senses generate in non-alienated and non-reied transactions with other human
and nonhuman beings, with organic and nonorganic environments.
Natural vulnerability
Aects and emotions reveal the specic and contextual ways in which human (and
nonhuman) beings are vulnerable, the extent to which vulnerability is concretely
and contextually shared. They indicate possible venues for acknowledging, taking up
and organizing socio-natural bonds so that vulnerability can become a possibility for
alternative, radical social and political experiments. Aects and emotions reveal how
dierent beings are vulnerable in dierent ways – also on the basis of socio-natural
determinations like sexuality, gender, race, disability, etc. – and indicate ways in which
such dierences can come to produce, increase, and share knowledge and mutual care,
instead of perpetrating and strengthening mechanisms of domination, oppression, and
exploitation. The recognition of vulnerability is not giving in to politics of precarious-
ness, tendencies to produce ‘victims’ and reify the discriminated, misrecognized, and
invisible: on the contrary, the recognition of vulnerability supports the critique of these
policies and tendencies.
Cherishing the opaque, uncommendable, impulsive, and thus vulnerable sides of
our lives calls into question current neoliberal imperatives of self-optimization, “enforced
happiness”, positive thinking in the face of catastrophes, practices of mindfulness as indi-
vidual(ized) strategies against systemic and structural problems. We cannot eectively
manipulate and control ourselves (our internal nature) in order to obtain the desired
goals, we are not merely the object of constant creation and invention. But aects and
emotions are not just limits; they also entail positive contents from which we can learn.
In this sense, Critical Naturalism can be the metaphysical spring- (or surf)board for new
ethical projects (some ideas: ethics of passivity, ethics of ambiguity, ethics of ignorance).
Third natures
The contrasting use of the notions of nature and society, rst and second nature, does
not refer to metaphysically given, separate, domains of objects, but rather articulates an
expressive vocabulary for developing social analysis. Nature and society, rst and second
nature, are dialectically intertwined place-holder concepts, to be lled pragmatically
in relation to dierent contexts, concepts which disclose certain congurations of
experience and action. In this sense their distinction is a dispositive, which needs to be
deployed anew in relation to the contexts we need to map, operate within, and critically
transform. Hence, the distinction between rst and second nature is contextual and
positional and has not only descriptive, but also critical and dialectical power. It deploys
the perspective from which, from time to time, we can critically re-describe processes of
associated life. But the breaking down of given social categories, by the application and
determinate negation of the notions of rst and second nature, is also future oriented,
and has a utopian moment, aimed at a trans-categorial, armative re-description of our
forms of life and of their emerging, dynamic, yet undecided orders of possibilities. One
could say that third nature is what Critical Naturalism, with the place-holder notions
of rst and second nature, aims at. The re-congurative task of Critical Naturalism is
confronted today, in the face of the ecological catastrophe and the entropic transfor-
mations of contemporary landscapes, with the problem of anticipating the future while
grasping a third way between primordial nature and reied second nature, wild nature
and humans’ enslaved nature: the problem of re-imagining natures, through cultural and
technological means, and conversely, of reinventing third natures as plural, contingent,
hybrid orders. In his essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter
Benjamin raised the question of how we can free ourselves from the historical cage of
a given second nature as it has been shaped through a relation – labelled as “rst tech-
nology” – to naturalness as to an external material to be dominated. Whereas second
nature, as it is historically given, is a distorted mirror of human beings’ domination over
rst nature, the utopian moment of Critical Naturalism envisages a third possibility,
whose anticipated gure could let us catch a glimpse of a dierent relation, which goes
beyond both the mere naturalization of human beings, and the humanization of nature.
Benjamin named “second technology” a dierent project of our relation to natural-
ness, whose objective correlative, in the horizon of the future, could be aesthetically
anticipated through the gure of third natures. Their traces can be detected in those
interstitial, undecided territories Gilles Clement names “third landscapes”, which are
left over, unattended by human beings and their historical constructions, and appear as
undetermined fragments, ciphers of the planetary garden.
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Federica Gregoratto is habilitated lecturer
(Privatdozentin) in social and political philosophy
at the University of St Gallen. She has published in
English, German, French and Italian on a variety
of topics in social and political philosophy, such
as the philosophy of love and sex, critical theory
(including the monograph on Habermas: Il doppio
volto della comunicazione, Mimesis, 2013), pragmatism,
recognition and power theories, debt-guilt debates,
gender and intersectionalist studies. She is now
working on a book about erotic love as a social
space of power, freedom and transformation.
Heikki Ikäheimo is Senior Lecturer at the University
of New South Wales, Sydney. His research areas
include Hegel, German idealism, theories of
recognition, intersubjectivity, subjectivity, personhood,
the human life-form, critical social philosophy. He
published the monograph Anerkennung (De Gruyter
2014), the edited collections Recognition and Social
Ontology (Brill 2011) and Recognition and Ambivalence
(Columbia University Press 2021), as well as
Handbuch (Springer 2021). His next monograph
Recognition and the Human Life-form is forthcoming by
Routledge in 2022.
Emmanuel Renault is professor of philosophy
at University of Paris-Nanterre. His research
interests include Hegel, Marx, The Frankfurt School,
Pragmatism, philosophy of nature, the theory
of recognition and of work. His books in English
include: The Experience of Injustice (Columbia
University Press, 2019), Marx and Critical Theory
(Brill, 2018), Social Suffering: Sociology, Psychology,
Politics (2017) and The Return of Work in Critical
Theory: Self, Society, Politics (Columbia, 2018, with C.
Dejours, J.-P. Deranty and N. Smith).
Arvi Särkelä is Lecturer at the University of Lucerne
and Postdoctoral Researcher at ETH Zürich. His
research interest include Spinoza, Hegel, Emerson,
Nietzsche, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Adorno, social
philosophy, philosophy of culture and methodology
of the history of philosophy. He has published the
monograph Immanente Kritik und soziales Leben
(Klostermann 2018), co-edited (with Axel Honneth)
the German Edition of Dewey’s Lectures in China
(Sozialphilosophie, Suhrkamp 2019) and co-edited
(with Martin Hartmann) the volume Naturalism and
Social Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield 2022).
Italo Testa is Associate Professor at the University
of Parma. His research interests include Ger