How Critical is Second Nature? A Diagnosis and an Antidote
Louis Carré
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 133-135.
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 naturalism, Second nature, Social philosophy, Adorno, Hegel
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)
How Critical is Second Nature? A Diagnosis and an Antidote
Louis Carré
Even for a naturalist, names matter. One should welcome the new label “critical naturalism”
and wish it good luck on the contemporary philosophical battlefield, where various opponents
be they reductive or liberal sorts of naturalism are already waiting for the fight. Yet, as the
Manifesto repeatedly states, the initial proposal of combining “critique” and “nature” under
one and the same heading is an invitation to raise further questions, among which: How critical
actually can the concept of nature work? And how far should we be critical in our discursive
uses of it? One thrilling path opened by the Manifesto pertains to the concept of “second na-
ture.” Conceived as a way to escape both reductive naturalism and supernaturalism, “second
nature” allows us to adopt “nature-skeptical” and “nature-endorsing” arguments (Soper 1995)
as it comes to grasp the historically changing and complex interrelationships of other-than-
human natures and all-too-human societies. Two claims are indeed central for a “second na-
ture” approach in critical social philosophy. On the one hand, it affirms that the realm of the
social is to be conceived as taking the secondary shapes of embodied habits, customs, rules,
and institutions, in which first nature be it internal or external exists insofar as it is socially
mediated. To put it with Adorno, “in truth second nature is primary” (Adorno 1984). On the
other hand, “second nature” firmly opposes constructivist and hybridist approaches where first
nature seems to vanish beneath its secondarization. Far from disappearing altogether, first na-
ture here is seen as persisting through its mediated forms in the second nature of the social.
Since Hegel, we know that mediation is neither about construction nor artificialization, but
about dialectically relating analytically distinct terms (in our case, “nature” and “society”).
However promising the path might look, the question about the critical potential of “second
nature” yet remains overt. The strong and convincing philosophical commitments behind “sec-
ond nature” are not per se critical. Again with Adorno, one could say that “second nature” is
only “tainted with critique” (Adorno 2015). If not critical all the way round, it even appears
here and there in Adorno, for instance as a direct target of social critique.
One example of how “second nature” becomes an object of critique rather than operating as a
critical tool is provided by Hegel in his anthropology (Hegel 1978). Putting into question the
mind-body dualism, the anthropology is also the place where Hegel develops some of his most
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
racist thoughts about non-European cultures. The paradox is that Hegel’s racism is closely tied
to a non-reductive “second nature” naturalism. Whereas spirit in general stems from nature
without being reducible to it, some races and cultures have shown to be relatively more at-
tached to their natural environments and inner needs than others. Considered in environmen-
talist and culturalist terms, Hegel’s racism partakes of the core idea of “second nature.” Still
applying to every human being and to each “spirit of a people,” the Bildungs-process which
consists in transforming natural environments through work, and elevating one’s natural im-
pulses into spiritual wants, appears to Hegel as unequal in time (some people are more “civi-
lized” than other “barbarian” or “savage” ones) and in space (geographical conditions suppos-
edly impede the advancement of human culture in some parts of the globe). The alleged supe-
riority of some human cultures over others is therefore as gradual (and not absolute) as the
process of Bildung itself.
Now, this does not necessarily mean that we have to throw away “second nature” with the
dirty water of Hegel’s environmental and cultural racism. Adorno’s immanent critique of He-
gel aims to show that he has not been dialectical enough when thinking of the relations of
nature and spirit. The problem for Adorno lies not in the dualist autonomy of Hegel’s spirit
apart from nature, but precisely in its autonomization from it, which results in the affirmation
of spirit’s gradual superiority over nature. To Adorno, Hegel has failed in his own dialectical
terms to grasp the mediation between nature and spirit in the very moment he considered the
former as hierarchically superior to the latter.
If the diagnosis of the non-critical, ideological side of “second nature” in Hegel is correct,
Adorno also furnishes an antidote to it by way of the concept of “nature-history” (Naturge-
schichte) (Adorno 2006). In the steps of Marx’ critique of political economy, “nature-history”
serves to criticize the way social tendencies (such as capital’s accumulation) are being “natu-
ralized” under the guise of so-called eternal laws of history. But next to this ideology-critique
variant of the naturalistic fallacy argument it also frames the way to a non-hierarchical, dia-
lectical understanding of the relations of nature and history. Unlike Hegel, nature does not
constitute for Adorno the mere “basis” (Grundlage) from which (European) spirit progres-
sively detached itself in the course of history. Instead, nature and history must be conceived
as remaining on equal grounds. Quoting from Marx’ German Ideology, Adorno speaks of the
true “inner mediation” of nature and spirit instead of the subordination of the one to the other.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
This leads to stressing the theoretical need today for more not less “naturalism” in critical
social philosophy. The concept of “nature-history” implies to denounce ideologically abusive
“naturalizations” of socially contingent practices and institutions and to give nature its fair due
within its constant interrelationship with human history. In our present socio-ecological crisis
where the possibility of escaping the stranglehold of Capitalocene is bound up with the need
of inventing new ways of socializing with nature, this double-sided approach could contribute
to the “critical naturalism” program so generously sketched by the Manifesto and its authors.
Adorno, Theodor W. 1984. “The idea of natural history”. Telos. Critical Theory of the Contemporary 60: 111-
Adorno, Theodor W. 2006. History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Adorno, Theodor W. 2015. Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge.
Hegel, Georg W. F. 1978. Philosophy of Subjective Spirit. Dordrecht: Springer.
Soper, Kate. 1995. What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Louis Carré is associate researcher of the FNRS (Belgium), University of Namur, centre Arcadie.