Carolyn Merchant,  "Science and Worldviews,"
pp. 41-60 in Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World(New York: Routledge, 1992).

Is the earth dead or alive? The ancient cultures of east and west and the native peoples of America saw the earth as a mother, alive, active, and responsive to human action. Greeks and Renaissance Europeans conceptualized the cosmos as a living organism, with a body, soul, and Spirit, and the earth as a nurturing mother with respiratory, circulatory, reproductive, and elimination systems. The relationship between most peoples and the earth was an I-thou ethic of propitiation to be made before damming a brook, cutting a tree, or sinking a mine shaft. Yet for the past three hundred years, western mechanistic science and capitalism have viewed the earth as dead and inert, manipulable from outside, and exploitable for profits. The death of nature legitimated its domination. Colonial extractions of resources combined with industrial pollution and depletion have today pushed the whole earth to the brink of ecological destruction.


The cosmos of the Renaissance world was a living organism. The four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) that made up the material world below the moon, and the fifth element (ether) that made the stars and planets were its material body. The soul was the source of its animate daily motion as the sun, stars, and planets encircled the geocentric earth every twenty-four hours. The spirit, descending from God in the heavens beyond, mingled with the ether and the ambient air, to be imbibed by plants, animals, and humans on the earth's surface.

The living character of the world organism meant not only that the stars and planets were alive, but that the earth too was pervaded by a force giving life and motion to the living beings on it. The earth was considered to be a beneficent, receptive, nurturing female. In the ancient lore, the earth mother respired daily, inhaling the pneuma, or spirit from the atmosphere. Her "copious breathing" renewed the life on its surface. The earth's springs were akin to the human blood system; its other various fluids were likened to the mucus, saliva, sweat, and other forms of lubrication in the human body. As the waters on its surface ebbed and flowed, evaporated into clouds, and descended as dews, rains, and snows, the earth's blood was cleansed and renewed. Veins, veinlets, seams, and canals coursed through the entire earth, particularly in the mountains. It humors flowed from the veinlets into larger veins. In many places the veins became filled with metals and minerals.

The earth, like the human, even had its own elimination system. The tendency for the earth to break wind was the cause of earthquakes and a manifestation of the earth mother's indignation at humans who mined her entrails. The earth's bowels were full of channels, fire chambers, glory holes, and fissures through which fire and heat were emitted, some in the form of fiery volcanic exhalations, other as hot water springs. The thin layer of soil on the earth's surface was its skin. European peasants nurtured the land, performed ritual dances, and returned its gifts to assure continued fertility. Trees were the earth mother's tresses. Her head was adorned with fringes and curls which the lumber industry sheared off.

A commonly used analogy was that between the female's reproductive and nurturing capacity and the mother earth's ability to give birth to stones and metals within "her" womb through marriage with the sun. For most traditional cultures, minerals and metals ripened in the uterus of the Earth Mother, mines were compared to her vagina, and metallurgy was the human hastening of the birth of the living metal in the artificial womb of the furnace--an abortion of the metal's natural growth cycle before its time. Miners offered propitiation to the deities of the soil and subterranean world, performed ceremonial sacrifices, and observed strict cleanliness, sexual abstinence, and fasting before violating the sacredness of the living earth by sinking a mine. Smiths assumed an awesome responsibility in precipitating the metal's birth through smelting, fusing, and beating it with hammer and anvil; they were often accorded the status of shaman in tribal rituals, and their tools were thought to hold special powers.

The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother served as a cultural constraint restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold, or mutilate her body. As long as the earth was conceptualized as alive and sensitive, it could be considered a breach of human ethical behavior to carry out destructive acts against it. In much the same way, the cultural belief-systems of many American Indian tribes had for centuries subtly guided group behavior toward nature. Smohalla of the Columbian Basin Tribes voiced the Indian objections to European attitudes in the mid-1800s.

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.

You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.

You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?

Such imagery found in a culture's literature can play a normative role within the culture. Controlling images operate as ethical restraints or as ethical sanctions--as subtle "oughts" or "ought-nots." Thus, as the descriptive metaphors and images of nature change, a behavioral restraint can be changed into a sanction. Such a change in the image and description of nature was occurring during the course of the scientific revolution. Today, the organic cosmology, experienced in some form by almost all of the world's peoples for all times, has been superseded. (1)


In the sixteenth century, as the feudal states of medieval Europe were breaking up, a new dynamic force emerged that shattered premodern ways of life and the organic restraints against the exploitation of the earth. Arising in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and spreading to northern Europe was an inexorable expanding market economy, intensifying medieval tendencies toward capitalist relations of production and capitalist modes of economic behavior. As trade quickened throughout western Europe, stimulated by the European discovery and exploitation of the Americas, production for subsistence began to be replaced by more specialized production for the market. The spreading use of money provided not only a uniform medium of exchange but also a reliable store of value, facilitating open-ended accumulation. Inflation generated by the growth of population and the flood of American gold accelerated the transition from traditional economic modes to rationally maximizing modes of economic organization. The growth of cities as centers of trade and handicraft production created a new class of bourgeois entrepreneurs who supplied ambitious monarchs with the funds and expertise to build strong nation states, undercutting the power of the regionally based landowning nobility.

Whereas the medieval economy had been based on organic and renewable energy sources--wood, water, wind, and animal muscle--the emerging capitalist economy was based on nonrenewable energy--coal--and the inorganic metals--iron, copper, silver, gold, tin, and mercury--the refining and processing of which ultimately depended on and further depleted the forests. Over the course of the sixteenth century, mining operations quadrupled as the trading of metals expanded, taking immense toll as forests were cut for charcoal and the cleared lands turned into sheep pastures for the textile industry. Shipbuilding, essential to capitalist trade and national supremacy, along with glass and soap making, also contributed to the denudation of the ancient forest cover. The new activities directly altered the earth. Not only were its forests cut down, but swamps were drained, and mine shafts were sunk.

The new commercial and industrial enterprises meant that the older cultural constraints against the exploitation of the earth no longer held sway. While the organic framework was for many centuries sufficiently integrative to override commercial development and technological innovation, the acceleration of economic change throughout western Europe began to undermine the organic unity of the cosmos and society. Because the needs and purposes of society as a whole were changing with the commercial revolution, the values associated with the organic view of nature were no longer applicable; hence the plausibility of the conceptual framework itself was slowly, but continuously, being threatened. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the tension between the technological development in the world of action and the controlling organic images in the world of the mind had become too great. The old worldview was incompatible with the new activities. (2)


During the seventeenth century, the organic framework, in which the Mother Earth image was a moral restraint against the exploitation of nature, was replaced by a new experimental science and a worldview that saw nature not as an organism but as a machine--dead, inert, and insensitive to human action. Francis Bacon (1571-1626), following tendencies that had been evolving throughout the previous century, advocated the domination of nature for human benefit. He compared miners and smiths whose technologies extracted ores for the new commercial activities to scientists and technologists penetrating the earth and shaping "her" on the anvil. The new man of science, he wrote, must not think that the "inquisition of nature is in any part interdicted or forbidden." Nature must be "bound into service" and made a "slave," put "in constraint," and "molded" by the mechanical arts. The "searchers and spies of nature" were to discover her plots and secrets. (3)

Nature's womb, Bacon argued, harbored secrets that through technology could be wrested from her grasp for use in the improvement of the human condition. Before the fall of Adam and Eve there had been no need for power or dominion, because they had been made sovereign over all other creatures. Only by "digging further and further into the mine of natural knowledge," Bacon believed, could mankind recover that lost dominion. Nature placed in bondage through technology would serve human beings. Here "nature takes orders from man and works under his authority." The method of science was not to be achieved by developing abstract notions such as those of the medieval scholastics, but rather through the instruction of the understanding "that it may in very truth dissect nature." "By art and the hand of man, " nature should be "forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded. " In this way "human knowledge and human power meet as one." (4)

Thus Bacon, in bold sexual imagery, outlined the key features of the modem experimental method--constraint of nature in the laboratory, dissection by hand and mind, and the penetration of nature's hidden secrets--language still used today in praising a scientist's "hard facts," "penetrating mind," or "seminal" arguments. The constraints against mining the earth were subtly turned into sanctions for exploiting and "raping" nature for human good. (5)

The development of science as a methodology for manipulating nature, and the interest of scientists in the mechanical arts, became a significant program during the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Other philosophers realized even more clearly than had Bacon himself the connections between mechanics, the trades, middle-class commercial interests, and the domination of nature. Scientists spoke out in favor of "mastering" and "managing" the earth. French Philosopher René Descartes wrote in his Discourse on Method (1637) that through knowing the crafts of the artisans and the forces of bodies we could "render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature." (6)

John Dury and Samuel Hartlib, English Baconians and organizers of the Invisible College (ca. 1645), connected the study of the crafts and trades to increasing wealth. The members of England's first scientific society, the Royal Society (founded in 1660), were interested in carrying out Bacon's proposals to dominate nature through experimentation. Joseph Glanvill, the English philosopher who defended the Baconian program in his Plus Ultra (1668), asserted that the objective of natural philosophy was to "enlarge knowledge by observation and experiment . . . so that nature being known, it may be mastered, managed, and used in the services of humane life." For Glanvill, anatomy, was "most useful in human life" because it "tend[ed] mightily to the eviscerating of nature, and disclosure of the springs of its motion." In searching out the secrets of nature, nothing was more helpful than the microscope for "the secrets of nature are not in the greater masses, but in those little threads and springs which are too subtle for the grossness of our unhelped senses." (7)

In his Experimental Essays (1661), English scientist Robert Boyle distinguished between merely knowing as opposed to dominating nature in thinly veiled sexual metaphor: "For some men care only to know nature, others desire to command her" and "to bring nature to be serviceable to their particular ends, whether of health, or riches, or sensual delight." (8)

The experimental method developed by the seventeenth-century scientists was strengthened by the rise of the mechanical philosophy. Together they replaced the older, "natural" ways of thinking with a new and "unnatural" way of seeing, thinking, and behaving. The submergence of the organism by the machine engaged the best minds of the times during a period fraught with anxiety, confusion, and instability in both the intellectual and social spheres.


The mechanical view of nature now taught in most western schools is accepted without question as our everyday, common sense reality--a reality in which matter is made up of atoms, colors occur by the reflection of light waves of differing lengths, bodies obey the law of inertia, and the sun is in the center of our solar system. This worldview is a product of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. None of its assumptions were the commonsense view of our sixteenth-century counterparts. Before the scientific revolution, most ordinary people assumed that the earth was in the center of the cosmos, that the earth was a nurturing mother, and that the cosmos was alive, not dead.

As the unifying model for science and society, the machine has permeated and reconstructed human consciousness so totally that today we scarcely question its validity. Nature, society, and the human body are composed of interchangeable atomized parts that can be repaired or replaced from outside. The "technological fix" mends an ecological malfunction, new human beings replace the old to maintain the smooth functioning of industry and bureaucracy, and interventionist medicine exchanges a fresh heart for a worn-out, diseased one.

The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature--the most far-reaching effect of the scientific revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism. (9)

The emerging mechanical worldview was based on assumptions about nature consistent with the certainty of physical laws and the symbolic power of machines. Although many alternative philosophies were available (Aristotelian, Stoic, gnostic, Hermetic, magic, naturalist, and animist), the dominant European ideology came to be governed by the characteristics and experiential power of the machine. Social values and realities subtly guided the choices and paths to truth and certainty taken by European philosophers. Clocks and other early modern machines in the seventeenth century became underlying models for western philosophy and science.

Not only were seventeenth-century philosophical assumptions about being and knowledge infused by the fundamental physical structures of machines found in the daily experience of western Europeans, but these presuppositions were completely consistent with another feature of the machine?the possibility of controlling and dominating nature. These underlying assumptions about the nature of reality have today become guidelines for decision-making in technology, industry, and government.

The following assumptions about the structure of being, knowledge, and method make possible the human manipulation and control of nature.

1. Matter is composed of particles (the ontological assumption).

2. The universe is a natural order (the principle of identity).

3. Knowledge and information can be abstracted from the natural world (the assumption of context independence).

4. Problems can be analyzed into parts that can be manipulated by mathematics (the methodological assumption).

5. Sense data are discrete (the epistemological assumption). (10)

The new conception of reality developed in the mid-seventeenth century shared a number of assumptions with the clocks, geared mills, and force multiplying machines that had become an important part of daily European economic life. First of all, they shared the ontological assumption that nature is made up of modular components or discrete parts connected in a causal nexus that transmitted motion in a temporal sequence from part to part. Corpuscular and atomic theories revived in the seventeenth century hypothesized a particulate structure to reality. The parts of matter, like the parts of machines, were dead, passive, and inert. The random motions of atoms were rearranged to form new objects and forms of being by the action of external forces. Motion was not inherent in the corpuscles, but a primary quality of matter, put into the mundane machine by God. In Descartes' philosophy, motion was initiated at the world's creation and sustained from instant to instant throughout created time; for English physicist Isaac Newton (1642 1727), new motion in the form of "active principles" (the cause of gravity, fermentation, and electricity) was added periodically to prevent the nonautonomous world-machine from running down. For German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the universal clock was autonomous--it needed no external inputs once created and set into motion. The ontology of this classical seventeenth-century science, modified by energy concepts, has become the framework of the western commonsense view of reality.

The second shared assumption between machines and seventeenth century science was the law of identity, the idea that A is A, or of identity through change. This assumption of a rational order in nature goes back to the thought of the philosophers Parmenides of Elea (fl. 500 B. C.) and Plato (4th century B. C.) and is the substance of Aristotle's first principle of logic. Broadly speaking, it is the assumption that nature is subject to lawlike behavior and therefore that the domain of science and technology includes those phenomena that can be reduced to orderly predictable rules, regulations, and laws. Events that can be so described can be controlled because of the simple identity of mathematical relationships. Phenomena that "cannot be foreseen or reproduced at will ... [are] essentially beyond the control of science." (11)

The formal structural dependence of this mathematical method on the features of the mechanical arts was beautifully articulated by Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1636): "Most of all I was delighted with mathematics, because of the certainty of its demonstrations and the evidence of its reasoning; but I did not understand its true use, and believing that it was of service only in the mechanical arts, I was astonished that, seeing how firm and solid was its basis, no loftier edifice had been reared thereupon." (12)

The primary example of the law of identity for Descartes was conservation of the quantity of motion measured by the quantity of matter and its speed, m|v|. In the late-seventeenth century Newton Leibniz, English mathematicians Christopher Wren and John Wallis and Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens all contributed to the correction of Descartes' law accurately to describe momentum (mv) as the product of mass and velocity rather than speed, and mechanical energy (mv2) as the product of the mass and the square of the velocity. Everyday machines were models of ideal machines governed and described by the laws of statics and the relational laws of the conservation of mechanical energy and momentum. The form or structure of these laws, based as they were on the law of identity, was thus a model of the universe. Although the conversion of energy from one form to another and, in particular, the conversion of mechanical motion into heat were not fully understood until the nineteenth century, the seventeenth-century laws of impact were nevertheless, for most natural philosophers, models of the transfer and conservation of motion hypothesized to exist in the ideal world of atoms and corpuscles.

The third assumption, context independence, goes back to Plato's insight that only quantities and context independent entities can be submitted to mathematical modeling. To the extent that the changing imperfect world of everyday life partakes of the ideal world, it can be described, predicted, and controlled by science just as the physical machine can be controlled by its human operator. Science depends on a rigid, limited, and restrictive structural reality. This limited view of reality is nevertheless very powerful, inasmuch as it allows for the possibility of control whenever phenomena are predictable, regular, and subject to rules and laws. The assumption of order is thus fundamental to the concept of power, and both are integral to the modern scientific worldview. (13)

Although Descartes' plan for reducing complexity in the universe to a structured order was comprehensive, he discovered that the very problem that Aristotle had perceived in the method of Plato was inherent in his own scheme. That problem was the intrinsic difficulty, if not impossibility, of successfully abstracting the form or structure of reality from the tangled web of its physical, material, environmental context. Structures are in fact not independent of their contexts, as this third assumption stated, but integrally tied to them. In fact, Descartes was forced to admit, "the application of the laws of motion is difficult, because each body is touched by several others at the same time.... The rules presuppose that bodies are perfectly hard and separable from all others. . . and we do not observe this in the world." The enormous complexity of things thus inhibits the analysis in terms of simple elements. (14)

Descartes' method exhibits very precisely the fourth or methodological assumption that problems can be broken down into parts and information can then be manipulated in accordance with a set of mathematical rules and relations. Succinctly stated, his method assumes that a problem can be analyzed into parts, and that the parts can be simplified by abstracting them from the complicating environmental context and then manipulated under the guidance of a set of rules.

His method consisted of four logical precepts:

1. To accept as true only what was so clearly and distinctly presented that there was no reason to doubt it;

2. To divide every problem into as many parts as needed to resolve it;

3. To begin with objects simple and easy to understand and to rise by degrees to the most complex);

4. To make so general and complete a review that nothing is omitted.

In Descartes' opinion, this method was the key to power over nature, for these methods of reasoning used by the geometricians "caused me to imagine that all those things which fall under the cognizance of man might very likely be mutually related in the same fashion." By following this method, "there can be nothing so remote that we cannot reach to it, or recondite we cannot discover it."

Descartes' method depended on the manipulation of information according to a set of rules: "Commencing with the most simple and general (precepts), and making each truth that I discovered a rule for helping me to find others,--not only did I arrive at the solution of many questions which I had hitherto regarded as most difficult but . . . in how far, it was possible to solve them." In the same manner, the operation of a machine depends on the manipulation of its material parts in accordance with a prescribed set of physical operations.

Descartes placed great emphasis on the concept of a plan or form for ordering this information, drawing his examples from the practical problem of city planning: "Those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas." He wished his new ideas to "conform to the uniformity of a rational scheme." (15)

In his De Cive, written in 1642, Hobbes had advocated the application of this method of analysis to society:

The fifth assumption shared by seventeenth-century science and the technology of machines was the assumption that sense data are atomic. Data are received by the senses as minute particles of information. This assumption about how knowledge is received was articulated most explicitly by Hobbes and the British empiricists John Locke and David Hume. According to Hobbes, sense data arise from the motions of matter as it affects our sense organs, directly in the case of taste and touch, or indirectly, through a material medium, as in sight, sound, and smell. These sense data can then be manipulated and recombined according to the rules of free speech: "But the most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of speech, consisting of names or appellations and their connection whereby men register their thoughts . . . without which there had been among men neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace." (6) Words are abstractions from reality; sentences or thoughts are connections among words: "The manner how speech serves to the remembrance of the consequence of causes and effects, consists in the imposing of names and the connection of them." Nature cannot be understood unless it is first analyzed into parts from which information can be extracted as sense data: "No man therefore can conceive anything, but he must conceive it in some place and endowed with some determinate magnitude; and which may be divided into parts." (17)

For Hobbes, the mind itself is a special kind of a machine--a calculating machine similar to those constructed by Scottish mathematician John Napier (1550 1617), French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Leibniz, and other seventeenth-century scientists. To reason is but to add and subtract or to calculate. "When a man reasoneth, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total, from the addition of parcels; or conceive a remainder, from subtraction of one sum from another; which, if it be done by words, is conceiving of the consequence of the names of all the parts, to the name of the whole; or from the names of the whole and one part to the name of the other part." "In sum, in what matter soever there is place for addition and subtraction, there is also place for reason; and where these have no place, there reason has nothing at all to do.... For reason . . . is nothing but reckoning, that is adding and subtracting." (18) This view is manifested in twentieth-century information theory that, according to philosopher Martin Heidegger, is "already the arrangement whereby all objects are put in such form, as to assure man's domination over the entire earth and even the planets." (19)

The new definition of reality of seventeenth-century philosophy and science was therefore consistent with, and analogous to, the structure of machines. Machines (1) are made up of parts, (2) give particulate information about the world, (3) are based on order and regularity, (perform operations in an ordered sequence), (4) operate in a limited precisely defined domain of the total context, and (5) give us power over nature. In turn, the mechanical structure of reality (1) is made up of atomic parts, (2) consists of discrete information bits extracted from the world, (3) is assumed to operate according to laws and rules, (4) is based on context-free abstraction from the changing complex world of appearance, and (5) is defined so as to give us maximum capability for manipulation and control over nature. (20)


Based on these five assumptions about the nature of reality, science since the seventeenth century has been widely considered to be objective, value-free, context-free knowledge of the external world. Additionally, as Heidegger argued, western philosophy since Descartes has been fundamentally concerned with power. "The essence of modern technology lies in enframing;" that is, in the revealing of nature so as to render it a "standing reserve," or storehouse. "Physics, indeed as pure theory," he wrote, "sets up nature to exhibit itself" in such a way as to "entrap" it "as a calculable order of forces." (21)

Both order and power are integral components of the mechanical view of nature. Both the need for a new social and intellectual order and new values of human and machine power, combined with older intellectual traditions, went into the restructuring of reality around the metaphor of the machine. The new metaphor reintegrated the disparate elements of the self, society, and the cosmos torn asunder by the Protestant Reformation, the rise of commercial capitalism, and the early discoveries of the new science.

The domination of nature depends equally on the human as operator, deriving from an emphasis on power and on the human as manager, deriving from the stress on order and rationality as criteria for progress and development. Efficient operation results from the ordered rational arrangement of the components of a system. The mechanical framework with its associated values of power and control sanctioned the management of both nature and society. The management of natural resources depends on surveying the status of existing resources, and efficiently planning their systematic use and replenishment for the long-term good of those who use them. (22)


The world in which we live today was bequeathed to us by Isaac Newton. Twentieth-century advances in relativity and quantum theory notwithstanding, our western commonsense reality is the world of classical physics. The legacy left by Newton was the brilliant synthesis of Galilean terrestrial mechanics and Copernican-Keplerian astronomy. Fundamental in generality, it describes and extends over the entire universe. Classical physics and its philosophy structure our consciousness to believe in a world composed of atomic parts, of inert bodies moving with uniform velocity unless forced by another body to deviate from their straight-line paths, of objects seen by reflected light of varying frequencies, and of matter in motion responsible for all the rich variations in colors, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches we cherish as human beings. In our daily lives, most of us accept these teachings as givers, without much critical reflection on their origins or associated values.

The problem that the mechanization of the world raised for the generation after Descartes and Hobbes was the very issue of the "death of nature. " If the ultimate principles were matter and motion?as they were for the first generation of mechanists?or even matter, motion, void space, and force?as they became for Newton?this left unresolved the central issue of explaining the motion of life-forms in a dead cosmos. Like many others, Newton was not satisfied with Descartes' dualistic solution, which reduced the human being to a ghost-in-the-machine whose mind could change the direction of but not initiate bodily motion, and categorized animals as mere beast machines.

Yet as the most powerful synthesis of the new mechanical philosophy, Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy(1687) epitomized the dead world resulting from mechanism. Throughout the complex evolution of his thought, Newton clung tenaciously to the distinguishing feature of mechanism--the dualism between the passivity of matter and the externality of force and activity. (23)

Mechanism eliminated from the description of nature concepts of spatial hierarchy, value, purpose, harmony, quality, and form central to the older organic description of nature, leaving material and efficient causes--matter and force. Motion was not an organic process but a temporary state of a body's existence relative to the motion or rest of other bodies. The mathematizing tendencies in Newtonian thought which emphasized not the process of change, but resistance to change, the conservation of a body's motion, and the planets and satellites as ideal spheres and point sources of gravitational force were manifestations of the mechanical philosophers' concern with geometrical idealization, stability, structure, being, and identity, rather than organic flux, change, becoming, and process. In mechanism the primacy of process was thus superseded by the stability of structure.

Completely consistent with this restructuring of the cosmos as passive matter and external force was the division of matter into atomic parts separated by void space. The book of nature was no longer written in symbols, signs, and signatures, but in corpuscular characters. The atomic analysis of matter ultimately became an exemplar for the atomic division of data, problems, and events on a global scale. (24)

Newton's speculations on atomic structure as presented in the 1713 edition of the Principia and the queries to the 1706 and 1717 editions of the Opticks became a foundation for eighteenth-century experimental philosophers, who wished to complete the task of reducing known phenomena to simple laws which--like the law of gravitation--would quantify other mechanical, chemical, electrical, and thermal observations. Moreover, its conceptual framework, emphasizing external force and passive matter divided into rearrangeable components, could provide a subtle sanction for the domination and manipulation of nature necessary to progressive economic development. If eventually the religious framework providing for God's constant care and for the attainment of human grace were removed, as it was in the eighteenth century, the possibilities for intellectual arrogance toward nature would be strengthened. (25)

The mechanistic view of nature, developed by the seventeenth century natural philosophers and based on a western mathematical tradition going back to Plato, is still dominant in science today. This view assumes that nature can be divided into parts and that the parts can be rearranged to create other species of being. "Facts" or information bits can be extracted from the environmental context and rearranged according to a set of rules based on logical and mathematical operations. The results can then be tested and verified by resubmitting them to nature, the ultimate judge of their validity.

Twentieth-century logical positivism, the basis for scientific knowledge, assumes that only two types of statements lead to truths about the natural world: mathematical (or logical statements) of the form a = a, and empirically verifiable statements. Mathematical formalism provides the criterion for rationality and certainty, nature the criterion for empirical validity and acceptance or rejection of the theory. Natural science has thus become the model for knowledge.

The mechanical approach to nature is as fundamental to twentieth century physics as it was to classical Newtonian science. Twentieth-century physics still views the world in terms of fundamental particles--electrons, protons, neutrons, mesons, muons, pions,  taus, thetas, sigmas, pis, and so on. The search for the ultimate unifying particle, the quark, continues to engage the efforts of the best theoretical physicists.

Modern science is widely assumed to be objective, value-free, context- free knowledge of the external world. The greater the extent to which the sciences can be reduced to this mechanistic mathematical model, the more legitimate they become as sciences. Thus the reductionist hierarchy of the validity of the sciences first proposed in the nineteenth century by French positivist philosopher August Comte is still widely assumed by intellectuals, the most mathematical and highly theoretical sciences occupying the most revered position. (26)


Between 1500 and 1700 an incredible transformation took place. A "natural" point of view about the world in which bodies did not move unless activated, either by an inherent organic mover or a "contrary to nature" superimposed "force," was replaced by a non-natural nonexperiential "law" that bodies move uniformly unless hindered. The "natural" perception of a geocentric earth in a finite cosmos was superseded by the "non natural" commonsense "fact" of a heliocentric infinite universe. A subsistence economy in which resources, goods, money, or labor were exchanged for commodities was replaced in many areas by the open-ended accumulation of profits in an international market. Living animate nature died, while dead inanimate money was endowed with life. Increasingly capital and the market assumed the organic attributes of growth, strength, activity, pregnancy, weakness, decay, and collapse, obscuring and mystifying the new underlying social relations of production and reproduction that made economic growth and progress possible. Nature, women, blacks, and wage laborers were set on a path toward a new status as "natural" and as human resources for the modern world system. Perhaps the ultimate irony in these transformations was the new name given them: rationality. (27)

Although the mechanistic analysis of reality has dominated the western world since the seventeenth century, the organismic perspective has by no means disappeared. It has remained as an important underlying tension, surfacing in such variations as Romanticism, American transcendentalism, the German Nature philosophers, and the early philosophy of Karl Marx. The basic tenets of the organic view of nature have reappeared in the twentieth century in the theory of holism of Jan Christiaan Smuts, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, the ecology movement of the 1970s, and David Bohm's holomovement (see Chapters 3 and 4). Some philosophers have argued that the two frameworks are fundamentally incommensurable. Others argue that a reassessment of the underlying metaphysics and values historically associated with the mechanistic worldview may be essential for a viable future. (28)

The mechanistic worldview continues today as the legitimating ideology of industrial capitalism and its inherent ethic of the domination of nature. Mechanistic thinking and industrial capitalism lie at the root of many of the environmental problems discussed in Chapter 1. The egocentric ethic associated with this worldview, however, has been challenged by the ecocentric ethic of the ecology movement (see Chapter 3) and the worldview itself by deep ecology (see Chapter 4).


1.Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), pp. 1-6; Smohalla, quoted on p. 28.

2.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 51, 63, 67, 5.

3.Francis Bacon, "The Great Instauration (1620) in Works, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Devon Heath, 14 vols. (London: Longman's Green, 1870), vol. 4, p. 20; Bacon, "The Masculine Birth of Time," ed. and trans. Benjamin Farrington in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Liverpool, Eng.: Liverpool University Press, 1964), p. 62; Bacon, "De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum" (written 1623) in Works, vol. 4, pp. 287, 294.

4.Bacon, "Novum Organum," Part 2, in Works, vol. 4, pp. 247, 246; Bacon, "Valerius Terminus," in Works, vol. 3, pp. 217, 219; Bacon, "The Masculine Birth of Time," trans. Farrington, Philosophy of Francis Bacon, p. 62; Bacon, "The Great Instauration," Works, vol. 4, p. 29.

5.Merchant, Death of Nature, p. 171.

6.Rene Descartes, "Discourse on Method (1637)," Part 4, in E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, eds., Philosophical  Worksof Descartes 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1955), vol. 1, p. 119.

7.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 187-88; Joseph Glanvill, Plus Ultra (1668) (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholar's Facsimile Reprints, 1958), quotations on pp. 9, 13, 56.

8.Robert Boyle, Works, ed. Thomas Birch (Hildesheim, W. Germany: Olms, 1965), vol. 1, p. 310.

9.Merchant, Death of Nature, p. 193.

10.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 227-8.

11.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 228-9.

12.Descartes, "Discourse on Method," in Philosophical Works, vol. 1, p. 85.

13.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 229-30.

14.Descartes, "Principia Philosophiae (1644)," in Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913), principle 53, p. 93.

15.Descartes, "Discourse on Method," in Philosophical Work, 93, 87, 89, quotation on p. 92.

16.Thomas Hobbes, "De Cive" (written 1642) in English Works (reprint edition, Aalen, W. Germany: Scientia, 1966), vol. 2, p. xiv.

17.Hobbes, "Leviathan," in English Works, vol. 3, quotations from Chap. 4, pp. 18, 20; Chap. 3, p. 17.

18.Hobbes, "Leviathan," (1651) in English Works, vol. 3, Chap. 5, pp. 29, 30.

19.Martin Heidegger, Der Satz vom Grund, quoted in Hubert Dreyfus, What Computers Can't Do (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 242, note 16.

20.Merchant, Death of Nature, p. 234.

21.Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 21, 23.

22.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 234-5.

23.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 275-6.

24.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 277-8.

25.Merchant, Death of Nature, p. 279.

26.Merchant, Death of Nature, pp. 290-1.

27.Merchant, Death of Nature, p. 288.

28.Merchant, Death of Natuure,pp. 288-9.


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