On ‘the Character of’ (tCo) vs. ‘the Nature of’ (tNo) – A Social-Realist Account*

In a previous entry I wrote about ‘non-natural’ and ‘extra-natural’ things as if they pose a challenge to the phrase ‘the nature of’ (tNo). This perhaps needs some clarification, especially for those who have come to embrace the ideology of ‘naturalism’ and the view that there is nothing ‘real’ other than that which is ‘natural.’

Showing my position upfront, I admit that I am not an ideological ‘naturalist,’ nor am I a ‘naturalist’ in the sense of that being my professional occupation (as Charles Darwin was on the Beagle or David Attenborough is today). That is to say, there are (at least) two distinct meanings of ‘naturalist’: 1) as an ideology (i.e. ‘naturalism’), and 2) as an occupation or vocation (i.e. working as a ‘naturalist’). What this means is that my academic activities are focussed on things other than purely ‘nature,’ except for the rather ambiguous concept duo of ‘human nature,’ which is of course part of the human-social sciences and humanities.

This short message contends that one way to articulate the distinctiveness of the human-social sciences in contrast to the natural-physical sciences is to replace or substitute (or simply provide a suitable alternative to) the phrase ‘the nature of’ with the phrase ‘the character of’ (tCo). This linguistic move displays a ‘personalist’ instead of a ‘naturalist’ approach. But why should others adapt their language this way and for what purpose?

A few questions: How is it possible, when living in a ‘natural’ universe, to even posit the existence of ‘non-natural’ or ‘extra-natural’ things? Isn’t *everything* necessarily ‘natural’ by default, thus justifying use of the phrase ‘the nature of’ when speaking about ‘reality’ as we observe it?

Let us look closer at these questions to see if ‘nature’ is as exhaustive of reality as ‘naturalists’ claim it is. The other option is that ‘personalism’ has some claim to speak beyond the limits of ‘nature’ using ‘the character of’ with regard to humanity and human-made things (cf. artefacts). This distinction acknowledges that natural-physical sciences and human-social sciences have both different objects of study and different methods with which to approach them.

Some background: Two branches of philosophy distinguish ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology.’ Ontology is the science/logic of being (existence), while epistemology is the science/logic of knowing (comprehension). When ontology is approached using a naturalistic ideology then ‘the nature of’ accounts for all of reality; thus, natural science is the over-arching study of reality. However, when a human being is reflexively acknowledged in the process of their knowing and learning, then epistemology takes the shape of the personal characteristics of the one who knows and learns, i.e. about whatever object is being studied. In other words, as soon as an ‘observer’ or ‘knower’ is included in the discussion (which is what ‘reflexivity’ indicates), then natural-physical scientific methodologies that deny the influence of subjective personal involvement become practically unsustainable and break down.

Jacques Monod gives an example of this:

“The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that ‘true’ knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of ‘purpose’ … For it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end.” (1971)

As soon as we admit the presence of the human person who is ‘doing science,’ we allow for purpose and goal-orientation into the mixture. Monod is therefore telling only part of the larger human story of doing science and what we learn from it as individuals, communities and societies. The purpose, the meaning of science (and knowledge generally) is to be found in the human observer, knower or interpreter, not in nature-alone in an unanthropic sense. Indeed, it is the anthropic sense of reflexive social sciences and humanities that is reflected in the phrase ‘the character of.’

Science, as a broadly understood term that includes both natural-physical sciences and human-social sciences, is best understood then as the study of ‘reality,’ as a way of trying to know or understand reality, and not merely as the study of ‘nature’ or ‘natural things.’ In this view, nature is merely one aspect of reality, but does not encompass all of reality. Scientific methods, particularly in the human-social sciences are therefore justly applicable to ‘non-natural’ and/or ‘extra-natural’ things, in the pursuit of knowledge. This opens the discussion to other major knowledge realms, such as art, music, sports, cuisine, medicine, religion, language, etc., thus eliminating the tight grip that ‘naturalism’ has held in some areas of the contemporary Academy.

Because of the natural/non-natural or extra-natural distinction, it is necessary to submit an appropriate positive alternative to defining ‘the nature of’ as the standard of ontology for all of reality. When the human-social realm is involved, it is more appropriate to speak of ‘the character of’ (tCo) things, rather than ‘the nature of’ (tNo) things. This was the linguistic alternative that I hinted about in the previous message, which challenges ‘the nature of’ as oftentimes an empty communicative phrase in the English language.

The preferred expression is to think and speak about:

The character of families;

The character of work;

The character of relationships;

The character of institutions;

The character of economies;

The character of nations;

The character of social networks;

The character of human languages;

The character of education;


Culture, economics, society, politics, religion, language and technology are seven basic, major examples of ‘non-natural’ and/or ‘extra-natural’ things. Yet by embracing the ideology of ‘naturalism,’ even in human-social sciences, these non-natural things are all unnecessarily ‘naturalised,’ they become dehumanising and depersonalising as merely ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ features of existence. In such cases, speaking of ‘the nature of’ human-social things, nations, for example, is to write a blank check suggesting that “things are the way they are and that’s just the way it is.” Is this the only way to view reality, with the human-social realm reduced to ‘naturalistic’ concepts, theories and methods? It would seem that rigorous and responsible scholarship in the human-social sciences is legitimate to throw off the unnecessary and humanity-distorting yoke of naturalism.

In our current electronic-information age, we can move beyond the paradigm that ‘all that is’ is ‘natural’ (or ‘normal’ – this topic for another thread) simply because we can speak about ‘the nature of’ something. ‘The nature of’ electricity harnessed by human beings is not just something ‘natural’ as a theory of physics would say; it demonstrates for human life the shift from ‘natural selection’ to ‘human selection.’ With this important distinction in mind, let me suggest that even Darwin would have accepted correction to his language in the 21st century if he saw such ‘artificial selection’ happening on such a worldwide scale today.

So what does this slight adaptation of expression actually mean in practise? If ‘the nature of’ is really one of the emptiest phrases in the English language, then in most cases it can be safely removed without any loss of meaning to a sentence. I suggest trying this out for yourself; see if it alters your intended meaning in a significant way when you write or speak by removing the phrase ‘the nature of.’

In other words, for communicative purposes, there is no need to speak about ‘the nature of’ something once it is understood that the general framework of communication is already naturalistic, that the background meaning is one strictly for a natural scientific interpretation or explanation of reality. In such cases, it is redundant and unnecessary to highlight ‘the nature of’ rocks, birds or flowers because it is commonly accepted that they are ‘natural.’ Going to the effort of trying to ‘naturalise nature’ seems pointless, if not for the ideological motive of promoting naturalism as a worldview. For those who reject this universalised ‘naturalism,’ it makes sense to secure the alternative view by speaking of ‘the character of’ things.

When ‘the nature of’ is used for families, work, relationships, institutions, etc. in the human-social realm, then it serves the depersonalised, objectivistic ideological throne of ‘naturalism’ rather than encouraging a deeper more ‘organic’ understanding of humanity and individual human persons. By highlighting ‘the character of’ these human entities or any other artefact of human construction, it serves to demonstrate the unique character of humanities and social sciences that contribute to knowledge and understanding of individual persons and groups. And in these fields, human betterment and flourishing societies are always kept at the forefront of the scholarly mission, as a goal-oriented, teleological component of reflexive human living.

Thus, in brief, an appropriate foil to the universalistic claims of ‘naturalism’ as demonstrated in the phrase ‘the nature of’ is to admit that human existence involves non-natural or extra-natural dimensions. We can therefore speak of ‘the character of’ people and persons, and even perhaps ‘the Character of’ the Universe, that is, if we wish to push back against the mechanistic understanding of reality reminiscent of the disenchanting ‘cultural narrative’ within which much of western intellectual thought is framed.

In short: tNo vs. tCo = helping to re-balance the conversation away from naturalism and towards personalism in 21st century higher education.

[*This entry should be seen as a work in progress, a first attempt to unpack how naturalism and personalism differ as do the natural-physical sciences and human-social sciences.]

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