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The Concept of Nature and Historicism in Marx

Author(s): Wenxi Zhang

Source: Frontiers of Philosophy in China, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 630-642
Published by: Springer
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Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642
DOI 10.1007/si11466-006-0028-1
* A

Zhang Wenxi

Theconceptofnature inMarx

a HigherEducationPress and Springer-Verlag2006

Abstract Scholarsof Marx often spend much effort to emphasizethe

characteristics of Marx'sconceptof nature.At the sametime,
fromthis conceptof nature,one seemsto be ableto deducea strongsenseof
historicalanthropocentricism andrelativism.But throughan explorationof
the results of Rorty's discardingthe distinctionbetween "natural"and
"man-made"and Strauss' clearingup value relativismin terms of the
conceptof nature,peoplewill find thathistoricismis a worldoutlookthat
broughtits historicalcircumstances on itself.It neglectsthe fundamental
of naturein the structureof the relationships betweennatureandhistory.A
modernresultof it is thatit failsto offeranyuniversalnorms.

Keywords historicism,concept of nature,Marx

"The entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the begetting of man
through human labour, nothing but the coming-to-be of nature for man."
(Marx 1959, p.113) This aphorism is frequently quoted in Marx's works.
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with him, this aphorism is
taken to be a typical description of the relationship between history and
nature, and humans and nature by Marx. But regardless of historicism's

Translatedfrom RenwenZazhi LA1A (Journalof Humanities),2005 (1)

Zhang Wenxi(l)
School of Humanities,ZhejiangGongshangUniversity,Hangzhou310035, China
Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642 631

theyendorseor criticizethe main

defenders,or so-called"fake-historicism"',
idea of this aphorismso hastilythatthey nevergraspany of its necessary
conclusions.In the 160 yearssince Marxwrotethis aphorism,the questions
withinit have remainedconstant,but interpretations
of the questionshave
changed along with history. What do these changes tell us? The relationship
between the concept of nature and historicism in Marx will be discussed in
this article.

In his famous remark on Karl Marx, "A Contributionto the Critique of

Political Economy",FriedrichEngels said: "The essential foundationof this
Germanpolitical economy is the materialist conception of history" (Engels
1980, p.469), which originated with Marx. But without the underlying
"exceptional historical sense" of Hegel, this concept of history is
unbelievable. Engels pointed out that Hegel "was the first to try to
demonstratethat there is a development, an intrinsic coherence in history,
and however strange some things in his philosophy of history may seem to
us now, the grandeur of the basic conception is still admirable today,
comparedwith either his predecessorsor those who following him ventured
to advance general observations on history." (Ibid, p.474) Here, we may
conclude that Hegel's predecessors' and even his successors' in the history
of philosophy, that is, philosophy in the Platonianframework,touch on the
trivial and concrete and link them together.These interpretationsare loyal to
describingthe relationshipbetween human and non-historicalmatters, such
as god and humanity. The goals they pursue are unavoidably ordinary
comparedto Hegel's grand narratives.This is because Hegel believed in an
absolute spirit, a rational spirit and revelatory spirit rolled into one, which
bridged the gulf between historical subjectivity and objectivity. But this
pursuit of grandiose historical purpose intoxicated Hegel with "the final
realization of history". Engels, however, explained Hegel's dialectics more
generously and sympathetically: dialectics in practice - although not in
theory - discards the idea to reach the ultimate truth and arrives at the
opposite point that each school of philosophy is an expression of the spiritof

The Chinese word "Jh11i " comes from the English word "historicism"or "historism",both of
which are translated from the German word "Historismus".Historicism here at first is a contestable
concept, for example, in K. R. Popper,historicism is a kind of methodology of social sciences that aims at
seeking certainhistoricalrules in history and hence forecastinghistory events. It is thus in the last century
discussed as the "problem of historicism", which is first in the form of positivism and then as a
consequence of the formerin the form of relativism.The word "historicism"which I mention here should
have differentmeanings in differentcontexts.
632 Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642

its age. All this encouragedEngelsto registerthis intellectualproperty,the

conceptof history,underHegel's name.Engelsemphasizedthe succession
of Hegel and Marx concerningthe historicalgrowthof thoughtand the
growthof worldhistory.
Engels thoughtthat Hegel's epoch-makingconcept of history was a
"direct theoreticalpre-condition"of the new materialistoutlook. Its
shortcoming is thatHegel'sdialecticsproceedsfrom"purereasoning".Marx
undertookthe workof extractingfromHegel's conclusionsandestablishing
them on materialism.In fact, the thoughtexpressedby Engels simply
repeatedwhat Marx once said, "Withhim (Hegel) it (the dialectics) is on its
head.It mustbe inverted,in orderto discoverthe rationalkernelwithinthe
mysticalshell."(Marx1977,p.103) But,in actuality,Marx'sphilosophynot
only overturned Hegel's,butalso accomplished whatHegel didnot - Marx
deconstructed the traditionalorderof logic andhistory,natureand history,
Speakingof the relationshipbetween Marx and Hegel, Marx did not
completelyabide by his own words. Accordingto our understanding of
Hegel, nature has no history,so he refused to use naturein his study of
history.FromHegel's point of view, changesin natureand the origin of
natureare the processesand logical consequencesof the conceptualworld;
logical precedenceis the foundationof chronologicalprecedence.Like us,
Hegel believedthat spiritworld appearedafternatureworld,but, he also
believedthat this was true from scientificepistemology,not of ontology.
Thisis becauselogic precedesnature.So the patternof historicalprogressis
determinedby logic, andnatureis merelythe environment in whichhistory
progresses.To the contrary,Marxconfirmedthatthe idea of naturein the
field of ontologydiffersfromthatin naturalscience,but it is not a historical
idea, either.Here,AlfredSchmidtmistakenlydistinguishedMarx'sconcept
of naturefromthatof othersby takingthe formerto be of socio-historical
character.Differentfrom Schmidt,we mustpoint out:natureis not only a
partof the developmentof mankind,a conditionforthe survivalof mankind,
or a meansto satisfyhumanneeds. Becauseif Marxstressedthe unity of
history,humanity,and nature,andtheirhigh degreeof integration,then in
the structurecontainingthese threeitems,natureis the most basic. History
takesnatureas its model.Historyis a naturalprogression,but naturetakes
itself as its model.Annotatorsof Marxhavepaidless attentionto theseideas.
For example,Schmidtinsouciantlyobserved,"in his works,Marxseldom
mentionedthe naturein itself."(Schmidt1971,p.1)
Whatwe say next will demonstrate this:in GermanIdeology,whenMarx
perceivedsomething, even the most simple,"sensiblyreliable"object,such
as a cherry,unlikeFeuerbachwho took a cherryto be a naturalproduct;the
Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642 633

thingwas, it is a seriesof facts:it was importedto Europeat

sometime; was a commodity;it hadsuchandsuchexchangevalue,andso
on. In discussing nature, Marx's annotatorsusually spiritualize man and
demystify nature. Moreover, it is a noticeable fact that Marx's concept of
nature has been within the framework of the modern era since the day it
came into being. So people always suppose that the naturethat they know
and control is the same as Marx's concept of nature, such as Rolf Gruner,
who thoughtthat Marxwas only interestedin this concept of nature.
Whatwe have to point out is, the label attachedto Marx by Gruner,"Marx
was as anthropocentricand anthropotheisticas his predecessorHegel and his
contemporaryComte" (Gruner 1985, p.71), accurately describes Marx's
predecessors.In other words, in orderto satisfy mankind'sbasic necessities,
people should remake nature, or humanize nature through economic
activities. But this idea is not exactly the same as Marx's. If we attributed
these modern ideas to Marx, we would miss out on Marx's real points.
Setting the practice of presenting one point of view with two different
thoughts aside, if the thinkerswho preceded Marx by one or two centuries
were not thinkingabouthow to conquernature,then what were they doing?
To understandthis better, we may refer to Leo Strauss. This political
philosopher first noticed changes in the moral and political world and then
how changes in the naturalworld gave rise to the crisis of modernity.But he
repeatedlyemphasizedthat the worst crisis in philosophy was duringthe 17t
century when the concept of nature was completely revised. Since the 17t
century,naturehas been turnedinto an object of study in the naturalsciences
and somethingto be conqueredby labor, worthless economically before it is
processed. Those thinkerswho successfully broadcastedthe establishmentof
a "modernworld" in the 17t century clearly defined mankind's liberation
and charted an "extraordinaryblueprint".The sagacious Bacon suggested:
What makes for our concepts (through observations and experiments
rebuilding and expanding our knowledge) a solid foundation on which
philosophy can base itself sufficiently, may be something steady and
compact, something inseparablefrom and compatible to the phenomena of
things; thus naturehas been understood,controlled,temperedand utilized to
serve humanbeings (Schabert1983, pp.110-24). To Strauss,modern science
has made a pretension of viewing nature so that natural laws and natural
things alternate according to the human will. In philosophical reflections
after Kant, this has been expressed by objective regulations that have
become more subjective, even completely subjective. This is one main
differencebetween classical and modernthought.
To this end, if we set aside Marx's opponents,it does not appeardifficult
for us to confirm the modern meaning of the concept of natureaccordingto
634 Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642

Marx.Butthisis a hastyconfirmation, suchas in AntonioGramsci'sMarxist

historicismandGgorggLukacs'shistoricontology.Theseeffects arerooted
in the modernimpulsesof metaphysics.It is in this contextthat a modern
interpretationof the conceptof naturein Marxistthoughtmakesit difficult
to avoid the "special feature"of Collingwood'sexplanationsof Marx's
and defenseof the "strong
"scientifichistory",especiallyhis interpretation
points"of Marx's concept of historycomparedto Hegel's. Collingwood
states that "for Marx himself naturewas more than the environmentof
history, it was the source from which its patternwas derived."(Collingwood
1946, pp.124-5) In Marxistthought, it is undoubtedlywrong to insist on the
dualism between nature and man, and nature and history, because it slips
into an idealisticview of naturewhichbelongsto religiousphilosophyand,
in fact (except when it is sugar coated) never actually integrates humanity
andnature.But if Marx'sview of natureis simplya kindof civilizednature
(Wataru2003, p.17) whichhas been transformed by the behaviorof human
beings, then humans will once again misunderstandhistory. This
misunderstanding holdsthatnatureandhistoryareopposites.Thishas led to
the belief thatthe historyof the relationshipbetweenhumansandnatureis
not a partof nature'shistory,andon the contrary,natureis a partof human
history.Everyonehas seen throughthis explanationof history,in which
historyis not consideredto have anythingpermanentandall of its ideasare
simplytheresultof mankind'screativeactivities.
Even nowadays,people still treatthe relationshipbetweenhumansand
historyin sucha basic context.Theyuse Marx'sassertionthat"mancreates
his own history"to constructa non-Marxistpointof view. This is because
peoplehavenot yet adequatelyconsideredthathumansdo not createhistory
arbitrarily.Humansact in situationsthatare not of theirchoosingand are
providedwith limitedoptions.This situationallogic opensthe possibilityof
the collapse of the traditionalway of thinking,especially for Marx's
deconstructionof the strong"anthropocentricism". In orderto avoid the
impulseof stronganthropocentricism, the Frankfurtschool has touchedon
this questionand indicatedthat the independentstate of naturehas to be
preserved,but not by ignoringthe interactionbetweennatureand humans.
Marx'sidea of the "naturalization of humans"and the "humanization of
nature"was necessary,but not at the expenseof abrogatingthe differences
betweenhumanandnature(Jay 1973,p.268).In ouropinion,the cruxof the
questionis the identificationof modernconsciousness,which was believed
to have achievedcontrolof the humansubjectlong before,withreal control
over humans,and will unquestionablyresult in the imprisonmentof the
This statementshows thatthe oppositeside of natureis thatpeoplehave
Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642 635

historicallywishedto get ridof natureratherthanthathistoryandnatureare

opposites.But it is not this easy, becausethe gain or loss of historical
circumstances depends on the historical development of the relationship
between humans and nature. These are not all within the reach of human
ingenuity.Humanhistory has a naturalboundary.For example, accordingto
Collingwood, Marx was restricted by nature so he analyzed historical
movements in this sequence: primitive communism, capitalism, and
socialism. And everything he did revolved around the principle that "all
historical events have reasons based in nature".Engel's words can also be
used to explain Marx: "The point where this history begins must also be the
startingpoint of the trainof thought"(Engels 1980, p475). According to this
view, the road to fulfilling the purpose of world history, as designed by
Hegel, the Germanspirit reflected the world spirit of a particulartime and
was a successor of the progressof world history. Hegel was contaminatedby
"nativism"because he logically abstractedmodels from history, not from the
naturalworld. Hegel did not realize that the Germanspirit could not serve as
a universalrule,just as his understandingof history was only limited to local
But, what things are universal?In the history of Westernphilosophy, why
are things that are particular always subject to universalism? Although
differentphilosophershave different explanations,most of them treat things
that come from a specific society and life and from a particular local
circumstanceas being a universal model for explaining history. To Hegel,
the transitionfrom particularismto universalismis a sublationprocess from
which nations and countriescan determineand arrangethemselves according
to the level of their self-consciousness abilities. Which nation will be left at
the end of history, Germanyor America, depends on who is the judge: Hegel
or Francis Fukuyama.Obviously, to Hegel, the movement of the spirit of
freedom in world history from Asia to Europe was sublation of the
constraineduniversality constrainedin a concrete body or individual in the
development of the philosophy of world history. Hegel compiled such an
end to the story and never reflected on his particularcircumstances:that he
belonged to the West Nothing but Karl LUwith's demonstrationscan make
people think of the failure of dialect sublation. To L6with, the first true
instance of universalismin the Westernthought system was Christianityand
Hegel based his understandingof the sequence of secular history on God's
vision of the future. The result is that providence has been recognized as a
historical precondition. Without providence, Hegel could not propose any
historicalschemes. But, as_Lrwithhas seen, providenceis "too uncertainand
too narrow"to use on trivial matters. For example, it is explicit when an
individualunexpectedly meets misfortune,but when used to explore nations
636 Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642

andstatesin worldhistory,we arenot satisfiedby this "hucksterof Belief'

(L6with 1953, p.57). On the other hand,Hegel's historicalmodel is not
rootedin naturalfactswhicharouse"radicalhistoricism". ComparingHegel
to early editors(such as Fontenelleand Condorcet)of a universalworld
history, Fukuyamastates that in Hegel who "believes that truth bears
fundamentalhistorical relativity",there is no acceptable or deniable
referencepointoutsideof history(Fukuyama2003, p.69), and people only
reach profoundself-consciousnessat the very last minute of history.
Therefore,Fukuyama ascribedHegel'sphilosophyto historicismandlabeled
him as the first philosopherof historicalrelativism.As "the first",the
profoundself-consciousnessobtainedby Hegel at the absolutemomentin
history,has been taken away by Fukuyama.Fukuyama'sHegel does not
havean absolutemomentin history;thehistoricalprocessbecomesa process
of the imagination whichcannotbe completed,or a rootlessandevil idea.
Fukuyama'sHegel is almostthe same as Strauss'Hegel (Strauss1953,
by Straussin NaturalRightsandHistory.Both of them
p.29), as interpreted
regardMarx as the biggest heir to Hegel. If we penetrateFukuyama's
explanations of HegelandplacethemaboveStrauss'scriticism,we will find
that"thehistoricalsense"or "thehistoricalconsciousness" of the nineteenth
andtwentiethcenturyis the resultof our"rejectas mythicalthe premisethat
natureis the norm"(Ibid,p.11). Thereby,the struggleby humansto wriggle
free from the shacklesof naturehas begun, and so has the dawn of the
historyenvisagedby themodernworld.


In the dawnof the historyenvisagedby the modernworld,thereis a new

pictureof the world:the separationof natureand historyhas become an
existentialtension between the modem and the ancient.It is primarily
representedby the rise of naturalscience and as the modernmeaningof
"history"becomesa culturalcategory.Accordingto Strauss,the discovery
of natureis the work of philosophy,not the work of naturalscience.
Philosophy began when philosophers, perhaps it was Thales, discovered
nature, i.e., when people distinguished between natural phenomena and
customs created by man. From this aspect, unlike customs, nature is not
always derived from humans. Mansfield, a student of Strauss, once used an
example to illustrate this. He said that when people say, "this is a sacred
white ox", in this sentence, white and ox are from nature, but sacred is
man-made.Before the discovery of nature,ancientpeople did not distinguish
between customs or ways that have been like this forever and are like this
Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642 637

everywhere and those customs or ways of different tribes. The "Old

Testament"is a standardor norm for people's behavior.In otherwords,
"culture" or "civilization"
in the pre-philosophicperioddid not considerthe
relationshipbetweenthe worldandhumansin lightof distinctionsbetween
natureand man-madecustoms.Strausspointedout thatthe word "nature"
neverappearsin the HebrewBible.Thebirthplaceof the conceptof "nature"
is ancientGreece(Ibid,pp.81-2). Greekphilosophersbelievedthatnature
andworldcannotcomeintobeinguntilchaoshas turnedintokosmos,which
is the originof theuniverse.But"history" is a completelymodernword.The
modemworldis the link betweenthe ancientworldand the contemporary
world, but it is also the junction where differencesbetween these two worlds
meet. Therewas no place for the conceptof "history"in ancientGreece.
Knowledgeabouthistorywas not at all importantto the Greeks.On the
whole,therewas a clearand definiteinterestin ancientGreekthought:not
only a differentpathfromthatof historicalthought,butmoreoverwas based
on the "metaphysicsof non-history"(Collingwood).This implied that
philosophybeganwith ourcommonsense andnaturalunderstanding of the
naturalworld.Kosmos,in Greekphilosophy,was not a conceptof thehuman
world, but merely an expressionof the naturalworld, and lacked the
characteristicsof humanity.Theconceptof "humanity" was so foreignto the
intellectualstructure of the Greeksthattheynevernamedit.
Arendtpointsout that"thereasonfor the absenceof the wordhumanitas
from Greeklanguageand thoughtwas that the Greeks,in contrastto the
Romans,neverthoughtthatmanis the highestbeingthereis. Aristotlecalls
this belief atopos,'absurd'."(Arendt1968,p.265) Thisdemonstrates thatif
a cultureis to cut shortits old way of thinkingwhichhas existedfor a long
timeandbegina new way of thinking,this changeis verylikelythe resultof
interference"fromthe outsideworld".It is clearthat "humanity" is not a
given nature, but is a purelyhistorical Towards
product. this point,Marx
saidthatman'sformof existenceandregulationshave"maintained itselfand
developedthroughhistory,in and with history"(Marxand Engels 1975,
p.109). Since humanityis historical,peoplepresumethatrulesof behavior
can only be created,designedand found in the historicalprocess. This
implies that, on the one hand, humanity'shistorymakes it possible for
people to freely create and plan a life looking towards the future. In this
sense, the history of humanityhas become a preconditionfor man's freedom.
On the other hand, because humanity is historical, accidental, and open to
the future, these historical factors do not belong to the natural world, but
belong to the humanworld.
Here we must pay attention: excessive emphasis of the historical
significance will lead to the belief that man's freedom cannot have a higher
638 Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642

footingindependent of history.Thisis why Rortypointedthatit is pointless

to establisha "philosophicalfoundation"for freedom,becausethis attempt
assumesthata foundationbasedon "natural order"exists.WhatRortycould
not makesense of was:thinkersduringthe Enlightenment who advocateda
liberalculturebelievedthat a liberalcultureshouldhave a foundation;so
these Enlightenmentthinkerstried to make a connectionwith the most
promisingculturaldepartmentof the day, the naturalsciences,in orderto
find truthsnot relatedto humansand an "absolute"foundationthat is
permanentand non-historical.To Rorty, although it was naturalto appeal to
the sciences, it was largely a "useful tactic in its day", but less useful
nowadays due to the "increasing difficulty of mastering the various
languages in which the various sciences are conducted"(Rorty 1989, p.52).
But Rorty fulfilled anotherversion of the Enlightenmentthinker's dream:an
appeal to a liberal society. Rorty thought that an appeal to liberal society
requiredhistoricalcomparisonsto see which case was the most attractive.In
Rorty's descriptionof the ideal, futureliberal culture,warnings about "value
relativism" and "nihilism", and his skepticism of whether modemrn social
institutionswere "reasonable"are completely strange and queer ideas. In a
word, Rorty allows us to abandon our search for a "philosophical
foundation".From then on, Rorty's ideals will no longer be bothered by
those "unbearablyoutdated"and "should be rejected" words, "relativism"
and "irrationalism".
The inspiration that Rorty's philosophy has given us it that
post-modernism is not all the same.Post-modernistthinkersare difficultto
differentiatein some aspects,but they are very similarin other aspects.
Rorty'sobjectionto foundationalism, essentialismanduniversalismis, in a
certainsense, similarto that of Marx's.However,even thoughboth Marx
andRortywere opposedto foundationalism, universalismandessentialism,
theyinvestigateddifferentphilosophicalquestions.It is apparentthatRorty's
opinionsare not as readilyacceptableas he promised.This is becausehis
philosophyis regulatedby negativism.As a pragmatist,Rorty supports
historicismand believes that all thoughtprocesses are the productsof
historicalaccidentsand the beginningand end of all ideas reflect social
history and intellectualtraditions.One of the tasks of his works is to
abandonthe vocabularyusedby Platoandmetaphysicians in orderto freeus
fromthe divisionsbetweenabsolutebeings andrelativebeings,natureand
convention, and objectivity and subjectivity. More generally speaking, it is
to give up the ancientGreekdistinctionbetweennaturalexistenceof things
andtheirrelationsto otherthings,especiallyin relationto humanneeds or
interests(Rorty2003,p.94).Accordingto Rorty'sphilosophy,originally,the
divisionin the frameworkof ancientGreekphilosophybetweennatureand
Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642 639

convention,i.e., betweenabsolutebeings andrelativebeings, is merelyan

outdateddogma. This dogma thoughtthat "discovered"naturewas in
actuality"created"or "invented"."Invented"means "contrived","artificial",
"out of man"and endowed with meaning by humanbeings.
But, we must recognize that Rorty just took something that people
discovered from nature as something that actually came from humans
themselves. It is difficult for other people to seriously accept this point of
view. In his opponents' eyes, Rorty cannot mask his attempt to ingratiate
himself to "relativism"and "subjectivism".But Rorty seemed unwilling to
argue with his opponents.He said, the most importantthing here is that we
that are criticizedas relativists,should stop using distinctionsbetween search
and make, discovery and invention, objectivity and subjectivity(Ibid, p.96).
Here, Rorty defined his position as contextualism and hoped to deliver
people from the false belief that there is a foundationbeyond history. When
we say that there is no such foundationor basis, it does not imply that there
is no evidence.So when he insistedon giving up the differencebetween
naturaland artificial,he did not feel comfortable.So it seems necessary for
us to add a sentence about him which will bewilder people: "I withdrawmy
words". This shows that Rorty sensed that his adherenceto historicism and
relativismwas leading him to make the same mistakehe criticizedothers for.
Isn't the assertionthat "everythingis historic and relative","universal"and
Starting from this train of thought, Strauss' critique of value relativism
and nihilism is appropriateto Rorty. Strauss said, "Historicismasserts that
all humanthoughtsor beliefs are historical, and hence deservedlydestinedto
perish;but historicismitself is a humanthought;hence historicism can be of
only temporaryvalidity" (Strauss 1953, p.25). In the process of pondering
the choices of modernity and comparing them with the ancient, Strauss
clarified the ancient meaning of nature and reminisced about a return to
ancient ideas. Strauss had been thinking about what he called "the three
waves of modernity":the rise of naturalrights in moderntimes not only did
not mean a returnto the classical naturalworld, but meant a drive towardsa
completely historical and modemrndirection. When Strauss refuted
historicism and value relativism, he advocatedthat we needed to understand
ancient philosophy as those people in ancient times understood it and not
understandit from our understandingof today's philosophy. But Strauss
knewthatreturning to ancientideaswouldbe difficult,notto mentionnature
andits relationto "naturalright"or"naturaljust",whichhadbeen excluded
to caterto history.Pursuantto Strauss'idea,eachof the greatwaves yearns
for a returnto the Greeksat its beginningandis dilutedby modernityat its
end. It is nearlyimpossibleto retrievethe ancientmeaningof natureand
640 Front.Philos.China(2006)4: 630-642

make it the standardmeaning. It so happens that Strauss and Engels are of

the sameopinionhere.Engelsremindedus that"thematerialistoutlookon
naturemeans nothing more than the simple conception of naturejust as it is,
without alien additionand hence among the Greek philosophersit was
originallyunderstoodin this way as a matterof course.But betweenthose
ancientGreeksand us lie more thantwo thousandyears of an essentially
idealistoutlookon the world,andso the returnto self-evidentunderstanding
is moredifficultthanit appearsto be at first sight.For it is by no meansa
matterof simply throwing overboardthe entire thought content of those two
thousand years" (Engels 1987, pp.478-9). From a linguistic point of view,
Heidegger insisted that Latin and the scientific languages based on Latin
suffered serious consequences and irretrievablelosses as the Greek concept
of naturewas translated.
In this kind of philosophicalcontext, we can appreciatethat Marxismtried
to subvertthe traditionof rationalismso as to transcendviews of abstractism,
essentialism and objectivism by placing the concept of nature in its
"original"position. But it cannot be translatedinto the language of
philosophy. Marx said that nature, understood abstractly and separately,
independent of man, is nothing (Nichts) to man. This argument, with
post-philosophical connotations, is interchangeable with Heidegger's
explanationof nature.The common point in Marx and Heidegger is that we
can only draw from humans the existence-thought-language, but we
cannot derive the existence of naturein itself-thought-languagefrom humans.
Nature is the common basis for humans (including history, arts, and so on),
animals and plants. It is the root of their common existence. So, in the
German Ideology, Marx insisted on the natural order and the existence of
nature as a precondition to social history; Marx never gave "history a
pantheistic 'independence'."(Schmidt 1971, p.35)
Admittedly, Marx was not concerned about abstract problems of the
naturalexistence of mankindand society. In Marx's view, people can ponder
these questionsafterthey have a grasp of naturetheoreticallyand practically.
But this does not imply in the least that Marx "treatednatureeconomically"
(Strauss),because what were in Marx's mind were some majorproblems of
the relationshipsbetween human and nature, and history and logic. These
major problems were foundationalproblems and they themselves have no
furtherfoundations;so they had to supportand be each other's foundations.
In this sense, we may conclude that Marx's concept of nature has
socio-historical characteristics and conversely, the socio-historical has
nature's characteristics.If the opinion that philosophy is an exploration of
"the eternalquestion"is correct,the explorationof"nature's characteristics"
in social history seems appropriate.Marx always discussed "the eternal and
Front.Philos. China(2006) 4: 630-642 641

natural inevitability"of human history in the sense of material

The criticalpointwhereMarxdivergedfromall historicists
and post-modemrnistswas whetheror not it was possiblefor philosophyto
grasp the eternal. If whether or not eternal knowledge or prediction of the
eternal was possible was the belief of nineteenth century Marxists and
historicists,then people in our era must first pay attentionto things that are
not eternalor universal,things that are changeable and individual.Early on,
Marx describeda picture of modernityin which the many differentthoughts
and beliefs of people vanish.
But, the crisis in philosophy and belief cannot prevent us from talking
about the "nature"of man or the "naturalspirit" of man. Generally, we
discuss the "natureof things",the "thingitself', etc., and even talk aboutthe
laws that regulatedhistoricalprogress in the scope of this category. This not
only illustratesthat philosophy's crisis does not mean a Marxist crisis, but
also shows that neitherthe world nor life will completely change because of
the modeling of time and history.

Acknowledgements I wish to express my gratitudeto Sun Dapeng and Tang Jie for their
help with translation.


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