Towards a Dialectical Naturalism: A Response to Critical Naturalism: A
Jensen Suther
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 155-158.
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.
Naturalism, Hegel, Normativity, Critique, Marxism
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)
Towards a Dialectical Naturalism: A Response to Critical Naturalism: A
Jensen Suther
The manifesto for a “Critical Naturalism” recently published in Krisis is an important call for
a concerted effort to develop a form of social critique adequate to the challenges of our mo-
ment. The authors invite those of us working in normative philosophy and critical theory to
consider the potential of a renovated naturalism, which will allow us to theorize “nature” anew
neither as a mere romantic residue best discarded nor as a “resource” to be endlessly ex-
ploited. Rather, Critical Naturalism understands nature as the material basis of social life and
thus as an integral part of the intersubjective reality we are trying to sustain.
The authors argue that a naturalistic turn in critical theory will alone enable us to effectively
contest the ongoing “administration of catastrophe” by governments across the globe, and to
rationally reassess our responses to, for example, the pandemic and climate crisis. According
to Critical Naturalism, such crises represent the return of the repressed. In treating nature as
an object outside of us which we mastered long ago, we neglect our own embodiment in the
natural world. Consequently, we inadvertently unleash forces that undermine the very “mas-
tery” we are supposedly exercising like a virus we allow to proliferate through our own
institutionalized indifference to the environmental consequences of advanced industrial pro-
duction. According to the manifesto, contemporary critical theory must overcome its narrow
focus on the “normative justification and political effects” of our models of critique and ex-
pand its remit to encompass the question of the material conditions of social freedom.
The best way, in my view, to express solidarity with those engaged in this important theoretical
struggle, and to acknowledge the merit of their work, is not simply to admiringly restate points
of agreement, but to highlight potential weak spots, ultimately in order to strengthen and ad-
vance the project. It is in such a constructive-critical spirit that I identify below two significant
limitations of the critical naturalist view one philosophical in nature, the other political.
I. A Missing Link: A subtle but important symptom of the problem lies in the authors’
way of talking about human development. According to their view, we are born “bio-
logical organisms” that, through a process of socialization, become “social and cultural
agents” irreducible to the “nature” we share with the other animals (111). In another
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
passage, the authors argue that “what defines the sociality of human life is a transfor-
mation of the first nature of human organisms into a second nature” (117). Yet this
“dual-aspect” account of human being gives rise to a tangle of conceptual difficulties.
If we are born mere animals, what renders us susceptible to the process of socialization?
A dual-aspect approach does not articulate the “link” between animality and rationality
so much as “leap” over the gap between them that it leaves in place. On my Aristote-
lian-Hegelian view, which builds on the work of Sebastian Rödl and Andrea Kern, we
are born distinctively rational animals, with the embodied potential to learn to be self-
conscious subjects. This “transformative” rather than “additive” position to invoke
philosopher Matthew Boyle’s distinction requires that we understand human life not
as animality plus rationality but as a rational form of animality, not shared by the other
animals. Human infants cannot successfully be the kind of animals they are unless they
are initiated into the practice of giving and asking for reasons. This means that there is
no “highest common factor” between us and the other animals, since our biological
integrity itself hinges on our ability to give reasons for our actions and beliefs that other
rational agents can share. According to my transformative perspective, our first, bio-
logical, nature just is our capacity for acquiring a second nature.
It could be that the proponents of Critical Naturalism would ultimately affirm this view,
but many of the formulations in the manifesto remain ambiguous. For example, the
authors rightly seek to overcome the antinomy of “biological reductionism” and “social
constructivism,” grasping “health as well as the body as both social constructs and
something irreducible to social construction” (111). Yet, arguably, this already con-
cedes too much to both constructivism and reductivism in assuming that rationality is
extra-biological and that our social “essence” is a matter of construction. To take an
example, there are no discrete, even notionally separable “biological” dimensions of
human reproduction. We reproduce ourselves biologically precisely through the nor-
mative form of our kinship relations. Biological dimorphism is not the highest common
factor between us and the other animals, since sexual reproduction in our case cannot
be considered in abstraction from our historical understanding of how we ought to re-
produce that is, how the family ought to be structured, how children ought to be
reared, and so on.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
II. A Missing Category: I mentioned above that the authors also concede too much to the
constructivist view. This is the perfect juncture to turn to the second limitation of Crit-
ical Naturalism, in order to address the larger political stakes of the difference between
an additive and a transformative understanding of rational animality. As noted, the
transformative view conceives rationality as a distinctive way of being an embodied
organism, not as something “over and above” organic form. This means that what
counts as flourishing for animals like us is a matter of what we take to count as flour-
ishing. Yet this is not a matter of free-wheeling “social constructivism,” whereby what-
ever we take to be true is true. It is rather a matter of what Hegel grasps as the progres-
sive justifiability of our historical forms of production and reproduction. We learn what
truly counts as flourishing, and which reasons can genuinely circulate in a form of life
as reasons, through a historical process of trying to satisfy our desire to flourish (ulti-
mately, our desire for social freedom). Past, failed forms of life thereby come to func-
tion as partial determinations of what success would require. This raises the question
of the task of a critical theory of the present.
As the authors rightly note, “for a naturalist critical theory, the various normative, epis-
temological, and empirical contributions to social critique are not enough. What mat-
ters is also the reconstruction of the criticized state of affairs” (120). While the term
“capitalism” does occasionally appear in the manifesto, it is not a fundamental category
in the authors’ analysis, which focuses instead on “neoliberalism.” The authors con-
demn the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state and identify its revitalization as
one of their core political aims. Yet in my view, this account suffers from a major blind
spot: Marx’s critical theory of capitalist production. As Marx shows, the way social
wealth is distributed is fundamentally dependent on the way it is produced; the wage
form of modern labour, for example, entails the private ownership of the means of
production. Moreover, the authors fail to consider the systemic reasons for the repeal
of the welfare state in the 70s and 80s: the rise in wages and the rate of employment
led to a proportional decrease in profits and capital investment, which threatened to
curb growth and to destroy jobs. In other words, a return to the welfare state would
engender new crises while leaving untouched the underlying capitalist relations of pro-
duction. Because the Critical Naturalist view is irresolute in its conceptualization of
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
the relationship between biological and rational form, it is not fully free to rethink the
normative criteria for our biological reproduction. In sharp contrast, the transformative
view I sketched above shows that not only the form of distribution, but the very form
of production itself, must be subject to rational reassessment and revolution.
In a collaborative effort, philosopher Martin Hägglund and I argue in recent and forth-
coming work that the “missing link” and the “missing category” identified above can
be recovered by a naturalism that is not only critical but also dialectical. On the account
that we are developing, a resolute naturalist view must be (1) transformative in its con-
ception of rational animality, and (2) radical in its critique of the capitalist form of life.
Jensen Suther received his PhD from Yale University and is currently a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society
of Fellows. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in a range of academic and public-facing venues, includ-
ing Representations, Modernism/modernity, b2o, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is currently working
on two booksSpirit Disfigured and Hegel’s Bio-Aestheticswhich explore Hegel’s legacy for Marxism in
aesthetic, political, and philosophical contexts.