The Aesthetics of Natural History
Tobias Heinze
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 136-138.
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.
Critical theory, Critical naturalism, Adorno, Aesthetics, Climate crisis, Schelling
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 Aesthetics of Natural History
Tobias Heinze
Nature’s mutability exceeds nature’s malleability. If nature is “the totality of as yet unmastered
elements with which society must deal” (Horkheimer 1972, 210), the present situation can be
described as a continued naturalisation of society for nature, despite attempts to master it,
increasingly strikes back. It is open to debate whether this paradox of historicised nature
(Malm 2019, 170-173) constitutes a second dialectic of the domination of nature. As the Man-
ifesto notes, the dialectic of society and nature described in Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dia-
lectic of Enlightenment does not include existentially threatening dynamics such as the climate
crisis or species extinction (Gregoratto et al. 2022, 117). We are therefore in need of a model
that allows us to discuss whether the social repercussions of a drastically changing outer nature
are of the same contingent necessity as the dynamics described by Horkheimer and Adorno,
and thereby qualify as the effects of a second dialectic of the domination of nature.
Theorizing a critical naturalist aesthetics of nature mentioned but not developed in the Man-
ifesto (Gregoratto et al. 2022, 109; 123) is a potential starting point for disclosing and de-
scribing the present state of the intertwinement of the social and natural aspects of our world.
In the following, I suggest connecting Adorno’s Idea of Natural-History and his Aesthetic
Theory (Adorno 2002; 2006, cf. Pensky 2021) in order to develop a non-reductionist aesthetics
of nature that rejects both backward-looking idealisations of the experience of a purportedly
pristine nature, and the claim that the irreversible loss of untouched nature allows the aesthetics
of nature to be done away with.
In his Idea of Natural-History, Adorno develops a nuanced account of the dialectics between
nature and history (Whyman 2016). Instead of merely clarifying the concepts of nature and
history by their juxtaposition, he reconstructs the specific moment of nature in history and vice
versa: pre-revolutionary human history can be characterised by a nature-like eternal recurrence
of the same, while nature does have the feature of decay, ultimately a historical form of its
But how are we to discern the current state of this dialectic? Adorno’s theory of the art-nature
relation is an entry point. The latter can best be understood by a detour through Schelling’s
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
System of Transcendental Idealism (Schelling 1978). Here, Schelling outlines how the philo-
sophical knowledge that nature is always already productivity and product at the same time
can be presented in such a way as to make this simultaneity sensible to the I. Contrary to the
title’s suggestion, the two-sidedness of nature becomes sensible in the artwork and not through
the philosophical system, which nevertheless contains the arguments supporting this claim.
The unconscious productivity of nature expresses itself in the artwork, mediated through the
artist’s skill.
Adorno’s discussion of the art-nature relation in his Aesthetic Theory is to a large extent built
on Schelling’s thought (Flodin 2018; Heinze 2022). He too discusses the artist’s work as a
result of the mediation of subjective intention and unconscious dynamics both, again, medi-
ated by a natural moment. In contrast to Schelling, Adorno’s concept of nature is informed by
his notion of Natural History, allowing for a complex and nuanced discussion of the historicity
of nature. The artwork consequently does not only contain a nonpropositional truth content
that can be disclosed via aesthetic reflection (Richter 2006); it can also be understood as a
specific point of reference for approaching what nature is at a given historical moment, keeping
in mind how Adorno theorises the presence of nature in art.
If Critical Naturalism is to develop an aesthetics of nature along these lines, it has to argue in
favour of a twofold extension of Kantian aesthetics: first, the historicity of outer and inner
nature has to be taken into account; and, second, the focus of the aesthetics of nature has to
expand from outer nature and the notion of natural beauty alone to including also those arte-
facts that serve as a starting point for aesthetic reflection. If Adorno is right about the art-
nature relation, Natural History is present in works of art in a mediated yet disclosable form.
Aesthetic reflection informed by this line of reasoning enables light to be shed on the current
state of Natural History as a truth content that is accessible by the interpretation of artworks.
This allows us to uncover the central traits of our present, naturalised situation, and therefore
to discern the conditions the dialectics of nature and society present us with in the attempt to
answer the question whether society is confronted with a second dialectic of the domination
of nature.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Adorno, Theodor W. 2002. Aesthetic Theory. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. London, New York: Contin-
Adorno, Theodor W. 2006. “The Idea of Natural-History”. In Things Beyond Resemblance. Collected Essays on
Theodor W. Adorno, edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor, 252269. New York: Columbia University Press.
Flodin, Camilla. 2018. “Adorno and Schelling on the Art-Nature Relation”. British Journal for the History of
Philosophy 26 (1): 176196.
Gregoratto, Federica, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault, Arvi Särkelä, and Italo Testa. 2022.Critical Natu-
ralism: A Manifesto.” Krisis | Journal for Contemporary Philosophy 42 (1): 10824.
Heinze, Tobias. 2022. “Ansichten der Naturgeschichte. Natur, Geschichte und Ästhetik bei Schelling und
Adorno”. In Naturästhetik im Zeitalter der Ökologischen Krise, edited by Christian Martin, 129163. Brill
Horkheimer, Max. 1972. “Traditional and Critical Theory”. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. In Critical
Theory. Selected Essays, 188243. New York: Continuum.
Malm, Andreas. 2019. “Against Hybridism: Why We Need to Distinguish between Nature and Society, Now
More than Ever”. Historical Materialism 27 (2): 156187.
Pensky, Max. 2021. “Natural History and Aesthetic Truth in Aesthetic Theory”. New German Critique 48 (143):
Richter, Gerhard. 2006. “Aesthetic Theory and Nonpropositional Truth Content in Adorno”. New German Cri-
tique 33 (97): 119135.
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. 1978. System of Transcendental Idealism (1800). Translated by Peter
Heath. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Whyman, Tom. 2016. “Understanding Adorno on Natural-History’”. International Journal of Philosophical
Studies 24 (4): 452472.
Tobias Heinze is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Social Research and a PhD candidate in Social Philos-
ophy at Goethe University Frankfurt. He studied Sociology and Political Theory in Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Mün-
ster, and New York and has recently been a visiting doctoral researcher at the School of Philosophy and Art
History at the University of Essex. In his PhD thesis, he analyses Schelling’s contribution to a Critical Theory of
Nature. He also researches contemporary and historical challenges of Critical Theory, such as the relationship
between psychoanalysis and social philosophy. He is co-editor, with Martin Mettin, of the volume “Denn das
Wahre ist das Ganze nicht...Beiträge zur Negativen Anthropologie Ulrich Sonnemanns (Neofelis, 2021).