The Critical Naturalism Manifesto: Some Comments
Hans Radder
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 114-116.
The prior issue of Krisis (42:1) published Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto, with the aim to
instigate a debate of the issues raised in this manifesto the necessary re-thinking of the role
(and the concept) of nature in critical theory in relation to questions of ecology, health, and
inequality. Since Krisis considers itself a place for philosophical debates that take contempo-
rary struggles as starting point, it issued an open call and solicited responses to the manifesto.
This is one of the sixteen selected responses, which augment, specify, or question the assump-
tions and arguments of the manifesto.
Normativity, Technology, Emergence, Critical naturalism
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The Critical Naturalism Manifesto: Some Comments
Hans Radder
By and large, I sympathize with this Manifesto and its main ambition to rehabilitate nature in
the context of critical theory. The authors cover many topics, which are necessarily treated
quite concisely. For the most part, these topics could be convincingly developed by revisiting
them in more detail.
Some of them, however, require minor or major revision. In this com-
mentary, I briefly address three related issues.
1. I agree with the authors that critical theory should involve more than a reconstruction of the
norms of social critique (Thesis 7, 108-109; all page numbers refer to the Manifesto). Yet, this
normative dimension cannot be left out. On this issue, the position of the Manifesto is unclear.
It states, for instance, that “critique must not be thought of as a judgment” (118). But in fact
the Manifesto abounds with judgments, for instance where it interprets and criticizes phenom-
ena as “inequalities and relations of domination”. More generally, the authors state that “Crit-
ical Naturalism proceeds negatively, by a critique of what is given, the prevailing forms of
life” (119). What is lacking is a normative account that tells us why a defence of the prevailing
forms of life is mistaken or wrong.
Such an account also needs to address the issue of the
epistemic normativity of critical theories themselves. As the authors rightly say, “theorists and
theories have a tendency to overshoot” (120). Since only empiricists (wrongly) think that we
can, or even should, do without theories, advocates of critical theories need to reflect on what
theories can, and cannot, accomplish. For this purpose they can profit from insights in recent
philosophy of science, according to which the scope and justifiability of general theories also
depends on their connections to particular models and specific empirical procedures.
2. The Manifesto is explicitly presented as a philosophical work. As such, its general style is
quite traditional. Its theses and arguments are mostly abstract and theoretical. Even the more
specific topics in the third section, meant to be “exemplary sketches of the varying ways to
practice naturalist social critique” (108), are described in quite general terms. In contrast, for
several decades many branches of philosophy (for instance, the philosophies of science, tech-
nology, ethics, and politics) have developed approaches that are “empirically informed”. That
is, their theoretical arguments are confronted with detailed studies of a variety of concrete
practices. It is true that several of the references to the Manifesto include investigations of
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
relevant practices. But the text of the Manifesto itself does not demonstrate great affinity with
these newer ways of doing philosophy.
Consider the huge impact of all kinds of technologies on the ways we live our lives. In contrast
to the early critical philosophers of the Frankfurt School (see, e.g., Marcuse 1968[1964]), the
Manifesto hardly addresses the issue of the many entanglements of technology and society.
The only discussion is a criticism of “technologicalism”, the idea that our basic social problems
can (eventually) be fixed by technological progress (112). There is no discussion, or even
mention, of the flourishing debates on critical theories of technology. A major illustration can
be found in the extensive, profound and much-discussed publications of Andrew Feenberg
(see, e.g., Feenberg 2002 and Cressman 2022). They exemplify an approach that combines
both well-developed theoretical accounts, detailed empirical studies and “valuable strategies
for progressive politics” (112).
While the authors write that “there is a need for a critical
theory of our uses of the natural and artificial environments” (120), my point is that it is already
there, in the form of a substantial body of critical literature about technology.
3. A basic claim of the Manifesto is that nature and society constitute two aspects of the same
reality, which cannot be reduced to each other. The authors rightly criticize both a social con-
structivist and a reductionist physicalist ontology. From an empirical perspective, we can of
course study the various relations between natural and societal “aspects”. However, in a con-
ceptual-philosophical sense the notion of aspects leaves the nature of their connection in the
dark. Concerning this problem, the more specific notion of emergence which seems to be
compatible with the position defended in the Manifesto can be fruitfully used. The core of
emergentist accounts of the connection between nature and human society is that the latter
depends on, but is irreducible to, the former (Radder 2023). Thus, it avoids both the non-
sequitur that irreducibility implies independence and the conceptually unfortunate combina-
tion of irreducibility with continuity (see Gregoratto et al. 2022, 114). Typical elements of a
social ontology, such as meanings and values, can then be seen as abstract entities that emerge
from specific socio-material practices: they cannot be reduced to these practices, but they still
depend on them because they would not exist in their absence. Furthermore, in this conception
the possibility of social critique that is, the capability of imagining what has not been present
so far but might come to be realized in the future depends on the open-ended nature of these
nonlocal meanings and values.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
1] For this purpose, the views developed by Roy Bhaskar in the 1970s and 1980s could be helpful. He combined
a realist theory of the natural sciences with a naturalistic account of the human sciences (see, e.g., Bhaskar 1979).
2] In Radder (2022) I propose such an account, in terms of the concept of common goods, which includes a multi-
dimensional, normative notion of democracy. Furthermore, this account meets the requirement of the Manifesto
that it should not merely be critical but also positively applicable to “the reconstruction of the criticized state of
affairs” (p. 120).
3] As to the latter, a remarkable aspect of the Manifesto is the absence of concrete opportunities for activism,
which are often seen as a distinguishing feature of manifestos (see Sally Wyatt’s (2008) review of a range of
manifestos concerning feminism, technology and society).
Bhaskar, Roy. 1979. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sci-
ences. Brighton: Harvester Press.
Cressman, Darryl, ed. 2022. The Necessity of Critique: Andrew Feenberg and the Philosophy of Technology.
Cham: Springer.
Feenberg, Andrew. 2002. Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University
Gregoratto, Federica, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault, Arvi Särkelä and Italo Testa. 2022. “Critical Natu-
ralism: A Manifesto”. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy 42 (1): 108-124.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1968[1964]. One Dimensional Man. London: Sphere Books.
Radder, Hans. 2022. “The Critical Theory of the Common Good, Technology, and the Corona Tracking App.”
In The Necessity of Critique: Andrew Feenberg and the Philosophy of Technology, edited by Darryl Cress-
man, 41-64. Cham: Springer.
Radder, Hans. 2023. “Empirical Concepts: Their Meaning and its Emergence”. Global Philosophy 33 (8): 1-23.
Wyatt, Sally. 2008. “Feminism, Technology and the Information Society: Learning from the Past, Imagining the
Future”. Information, Communication & Society 11 (1): 111-130. DOI: 10.1080/13691180701859065
Hans Radder is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam. In 2019, he published From
Commodification to the Common Good: Reconstructing Science, Technology, and Society (University of Pitts-
burgh Press). Two recent articles about the ethics and politics of science can be found
at and