Theory at the Limits of Science and Politics: The Challenges of Writing a
Manifesto in Times of Climate Collapse
Carmen Lea Dege
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 120-123.
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, Critical theory
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)
Theory at the Limits of Science and Politics: The Challenges of Writing a
Manifesto in Times of Climate Collapse
Carmen Lea Dege
We know today that, in the absence of significant changes to how billions of humans conduct
their lives, part of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifi-
cally inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century. Against the sense of continuous denial,
powerlessness, and lack of meaningful action, “Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto” responds to
the urgency of the moment from the perspective of critical theory. The authors maintain that
philosophy can no longer be assimilated to the owl of Minerva, which only flies at dusk, be-
cause we no longer have the luxury to wait, and because philosophy, so they argue, mirrors
and reproduces the very ideas of nature that aggravate the climate catastrophe. These ideas
have too long been driven by the pernicious desire to master and control. In order to arrive at
a more holistic and sustainable approach to life on Earth, the authors demand of us to change
our relation to nature, rather than abandon the concept or abstract society away from it. Instead
of separating nature and society, or romanticizing a harmonious reconciliation, the authors
suggest that we carve out a self-reflective, experimental and ambiguous space of “third nature”
(123) that resists “hubristic fantasies of independence from nature” (121) and enables us to
“care for vulnerable, embodied, interdependent humans in natural and social environments”
The choice of the manifesto as a genre of writing appears to be motivated by this combination
of theoretical challenge and practical urgency. I find myself mostly in agreement with the
content of the text but want to pause and ask, first, whether we are in fact dealing with a
manifesto worthy of the name. I claim we do not, which might, curiously, provoke a sense of
frustration and performative contradiction in the reader and undermine the intentions of the
text. Despite its title the text primarily represents a scholarly intervention framed in terms of
a theoretical solution. Secondly, I wish to resist a plausible response to my critique, namely
that the term “manifesto” might be merely tagged on to the title in order to gain attention.
Instead, I contend that it is precisely these alternative narrative formats of fiction and non-
fiction and their emphasis on imaginative success rather than ideology critique and scholarly
argumentation which are more attuned to the idea of nature that the authors of the text seek
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
to highlight. As we have learned from the Covid pandemic and the rise of conspiracy theories
and science denialism, the public sphere is not a seminar room or laboratory which might be
more conducive to the forceless force of the better argument. People do not change their beliefs
in accordance with overwhelming scientific evidence, neither do they seem to respond posi-
tively to the politicization of knowledge. In this context, the choice of more experimental writ-
ing styles seems apt. If done in a self-reflective manner, I suggest, methods and hermeneutic
tools such as these might enable theory to realize for itself a third standpoint of critique that
can straddle the divide between science and politics.
If we think of famous manifestos such as the “The Communist Manifesto” (1848), “The
Manifesto of Futurism” (1909), but also, for the purposes of this text, “The Surrealist Mani-
festo” (1924) by André Breton the text does not seem to match the genre. Evocative phrases
such as “a spectre is stalking Europe” (Marx and Engels 2004, 61) or “beloved imagination,
what I most like in you is your unsparing quality […] By contrast, the realistic attitude, inspired
by positivism, […] is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit” (Breton 1971, 26), express
a bold and assertive style that reflects a sense of urgency as well as an imaginative vision
which rallies diverse groups around a common cause. Unlike a scholarly article that uses tech-
nical and specialized terminology, or a party program that provides outlines of specific policy
proposals, a manifesto represents a passionate and persuasive statement that enables new forms
of solidarity, coalition building, and collective action. In my view, “Critical Naturalism: A
Manifesto” either does not seem to be able to commit to one of these genres or tries to be all
at once: practical, visionary, and scholarly. This combination of narrative structures is clearly
desirable, and one could argue that a successful manifesto realizes such a delicate balance. The
text, however, is symptomatic of how difficult it is to confront this challenge, as it is particu-
larly noticeable how the “manifesto” becomes dominated by a political and scientific language
which, eventually, sacrifices any attempt to work on motivational commitments, or speak to
our ecological sentiments and the ways they appear natural to us. In the end, the passionate
inversive style so characteristic of a manifesto almost entirely gives way to a political aca-
demic program which heavy in jargon despite its critique of intellectual abstraction might
not reach beyond the horizon of a few not-yet-fully convinced critical theorists who continue
to use uncritical forms of either naturalism or anti-naturalism.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
But if the audience mainly consists of those almost or already converted, why write a manifesto
after all? There is an attempt at coalition building, but it features in a strange way because
leading theorists who might be in favour of the project are criticized, and in turn potentially
alienated, while other scholars and resources that do exist and could help envision an alterna-
tive horizon of environmental thinking and action are not mentioned at all. For instance, I
would argue that Bruno Latour, Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, and Judith Butler are probably
more in solidarity with the overall project and represent less suitable theoretic antagonists than
the authors want the reader to believe. On the other hand, there are many social and critical
theorists who already form part of a larger intellectual movement that shows considerable
overlap with the goals of the text. Why not include exemplary allies who, for instance, theorize
fabulations between scientific evidence and experimentation (Haraway 2016) and indigenous
wisdom (Wall Kimmerer 2013; Kohn 2013), engage meaningfully with Marxist theorizing in
the Anthropocene (Saito 2002), or think of nature in agentive ways (Taylor 2011; Vettese and
Krause 2020)?
Taking my cue from Liza Taylor’s inspiring examination of theoretical resources developed
by the coalitional politics of US women of color feminists (2022), I suggest we need more
manifestos which use both audacious as well as conceptually rigorous expressions of belief to
braid solidarities more effectively. A self-critical focus on storytelling may allow us to demote
the significance of rational argumentation, scientific accuracy, and political appeal in ways
that remain inquisitive and dialogical. Most importantly, this kind of imaginative exploration
may be more amenable to a non-dominating relation to nature which resists the robust, inte-
grated subject or the presentism and solutionism of narrative completion. Given that our ideas
of nature are deeply habitual and hard to change, I argue that conceptual shifts require forms
of myth critique that move beyond argumentative debates. As we are complicit in reproducing
the most foundational yet ultimately self-destructive ideas of human life and nature, the prob-
lem might consist less in the correct science or politics of philosophy but rather in its practice
as visionary thought. Such a practice will have to enable us to stay with the trouble,” using
Haraway’s words. The text might express intentions along those lines, but its language draws
too heavily on traditional notions of objectivity and political authority to show a stronger po-
tential to translate key ideas into a more aspirational and inspiring idiom. Caught between
science and politics, the fragmentary and experimental all too easily drowns. For it to have a
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
more emancipatory voice, critical theorists might need to become better storytellers and reflect
on the conditions of imaginative success for critical naturalism in particular, and social critique
in general.
Breton, André. 1971 [1924]. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2016. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham, NH: Duke
University Press.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley and Los An-
geles, CA: University of California Press.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2004 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview
Saito, Kohei. 2022. Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, Liza. 2022. Feminism in Coalition: Thinking With Us Women of Color Feminism. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press.
Taylor, Paul W. 2011. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univer-
sity Press.
Vettese, Troy, and Sharon R Krause. 2020. “Environmental Domination.” Political Theory 48 (4): 44368.
Wall Kimmerer, Robin. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teach-
ings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed.
Carmen Lea Dege is a Visiting Scholar at the Remarque Institute at New York University and, starting January
2024, an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen. She holds a
Ph. D. in Political Theory from Yale University and a Master's degree in the Social Sciences from the University
of Chicago. Her work is situated within critical theory, political epistemology, democratic theory, and environ-
mental thought. It probes the role of myth and ignorance in the face of humanity’s inability to act despite the
overwhelming scientific evidence about human-caused climate change.