(Partially) Enchanted Amphibians: or, What Kant, McDowell and Aristotle Have to Teach Us About Our Second Nature

Modern philosophy can be characterized by two things: a deep hostility to any idea of ‘enchantment’ and a deep forgetfulness of the idea of ‘second nature’. Properly qualified, the former is acceptable (there need be no overarching enchanted metaphysical scheme underlying nature), but the latter is the source of some of the key problems of modernity, the most prominent of which might very well be the problem of the naturalness and mindedness of man. This is the axis on which German Idealism turned, and the answers the idealists struggled for continue to fund contemporary discussions; it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the question of naturalness and mindedness encompasses nearly every aspect of philosophy. The problem itself will be discussed first, then the idea of ‘second nature’.


As an attempt at definition, let us say that the problem of naturalness and mindedness is the problem of how humans can be both subject to and a part of the world of causes (the natural world) while at the same time being subject to and a part of the world of reasons, rationality and norms (the minded world). Sellars familiar ‘space of law’ and ‘space of reasons’ is a more contemporary phrasing of the problem, and it is just this that makes humans ‘amphibians’. This dichotomy between the space of law and the space of reasons vexed all of the idealists, and while they understood what a solution would look like, it is doubtful that a solution was ever reached. What needed to be done – as Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel saw – was to overcome the gap between law and reason, nature and mind.  Put another way, the problem is how we understand the relation between embodiment and rationality.


Kant took rationality and reason to be fundamentally spontaneous, active and autonomous – that is, reason works in its own domain or space – the space of reasons. A significant part of the modern philosophical problem of naturalness and mindedness is the attempt to preserve this key insight within a framework of nature that is itself opposed to a concept of rationality that is natural . John McDowell diagnoses the root of the problem thus:


We need to recapture the Aristotelian idea that a normal mature human being is a rational animal, but without losing the Kantian idea that rationality operates freely in its own sphere. The Kantian idea is reflected in the contrast between the organization of the space of reasons and the structure of the realm of natural law. Modern naturalism is forgetful of second nature; if we try to preserve the Kantian thought that reason is autonomous within the framework of that kind of naturalism, we disconnect our rationality from our animal being, which is what gives us a foothold in nature…(Mind and World, quoted in The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism p. 139)


Modern naturalism, as McDowell has explored elsewhere, aims to subsume everything – including thought and knowledge – within the realm of law. For McDowell, to be rational – to think and know things – is to be an animal and to be a part of nature. If, following modern naturalism, we subsume the concepts of thought and knowledge under the realm of law then we ‘disconnect our rationality from our animal being, which gives us a foothold in nature’ (p. 139). The exercise of our rationality becomes ‘supernatural’, as it were:


‘If we conceive nature in such a way that delineating something’s natural character contrasts with placing something in the space of reasons, we can no longer take in stride the idea that powers to acquire knowledge are part of our natural endowment. Knowing, as a case of occupying a normative status, can no longer be seen as a natural phenomenon. And now it is easy for knowing to seem mysterious. It is no use expanding our conception of what is real beyond what is natural, if the effect is to make it seem that acquiring knowledge must be a supernatural feat. So with the new conception of nature, the knowing subject threatens to withdraw from the natural world.’ (The Engaged Intellect, pp. 258-259)


The attempt at maintaining rationality as something natural within the space of law, as opposed to within the space of reason, has something of an ironic result: we are left with a concept of rationality that leads to mindedness as mysterious. This, then, is the consequence of forgetting about ‘second nature’: the naturalness of human rationality becomes mysterious and even inexplicable.

That man is a rational animal, and that man’s rationality is (1) autonomous and (2) natural are the doctrines that need to be affirmed together in order for man to be both natural and rational (duh). These two doctrines, Aristotelian and Kantian respectively, need to be integrated in order to provide a fully coherent answer to the problem of naturalness and mindedness, and it is just this pair of doctrines, taken together, that comprise McDowell’s ‘second nature’. ‘First nature’, for McDowell, is the set of properties that we share with animals – these properties can be called (as Brandom would call them) ‘sentience’. These properties find their home within the space of law – animal sentience does not operate in the space of reasons in any way (animals cannot help but follow their own biological drives, impulses and natures – they can’t even so much as consider not following them). What humans don’t share with animals, ‘second nature’, is more or less the properties which shape their lives and experiences – properties which are rational. Norm-sensitivity, inferential capacities, conceptual capacities, the practices of giving and asking for reasons, etc, would all fall under this category. Because things such as, say, reasons aren’t themselves causal (since reasons aren’t events, and it is events between which causal relations obtain, causal relations can’t obtain between reasons), they cannot be reduced to laws or modeled after the manner of natural laws. For McDowell, these are the actualizations of capacities that are natural to a fully functioning human. It’s important to note the resistance to reduction mentioned above: part of McDowell’s project has always been to avoid a pure, disenchanted nature (where disenchanted means that all that is natural is subject to being subsumed under natural laws) and move toward what he calls ‘partial re-enchantment’.


At first glance this may appear to drive a wedge into man – or at the very least open up problem serious problem spaces. Is man one kind of animal, or two? How do these two natures interact, if they do, and how do the properties of second nature flow from first nature? I’m willing to say that there’s a kind of supervenience at play here: since man is fully natural, then any properties he has in his second nature supervene or even emerge from his first nature. This is a deeply Kantian way of thinking – man so conceived is conceived of a creature of two realms, the natural and the transcendental, hence the ‘amphibian’ moniker. This isn’t a mere conceptual categorization, however – we are not saying simply that man is one thing thought of in two ways: the conceptual differences follow from real differences in the world. Thus man’s second nature, his nature as a rational animal, emerges from his first, or animal nature. As Roger Scruton notes:


Humans are organized from their material constituents in two distinct and incommensurable ways — as animal and as person. Each human being is indeed two things, but not two separable things, since those two things reside in the same place at the same time, and all the parts of the one are also parts of the other.


The term ‘person’ here covers all that we have been meaning by ‘rational’ – norm-sensitive, inferential, etc. Man’s rational nature, his personhood and his essence, are natural and emerge from his animal-in-the-world nature, and it is just so that man is tied to nature while also transcending nature. Once we remember our second nature, the gap between embodiment and rationality which so troubled the Idealists vanishes. 


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