Mastery of Nature in the Atlantic Enlightenment and Commercial Republicanism


“For nature is not conquered, if not by obeying.”

It is no secret that liberal democratic politics and modern science emerged at roughly the same time and in many cases from the same minds. Both were born of similar premises regarding human autonomy, and both were nourished by the same hopes for humanity’s progressive self-improvement by means of the conquest of the political and natural worlds. Moreover, they mutually support and further one another: liberal democratic politics has protected freedom of thought, inquiry and publication of scientific inquiry, while modern science has furnished unheralded technological and economic growth upon which the former depends. In other words, the Atlantic Enlightenment and the Commercial Republicanism it issues is in no small measure, just the movement of these twin forces. For this reason the host of theoretical and practical questions involved the mastery of nature are in many respects the very question of the virtues and vices, and future prospects of the commercial republic.

To wit, beyond practical questions, lurks more profound theoretical questions concerning the rational coherence, psychological impact, and moral and political propriety of the whole technological-scientific project. Can modern scientific rationality really give an adequate account of the world and more specifically of the human world, including the human capacity for science? Is the vision of nature and of human being it imposes on us compatible with a fully human life?

Even since the clarion call of Bacon and Descartes that the “speculative philosophy” of the past give way to a “practical philosophy” by which “we” make ourselves “like masters and possessors of nature,” thoughtful observers have contemplated the direction, feasibility, and desirability of such a mastery.

In order to gain some greater clarity and insight on the host of complex issues involved in “the mastery of nature,” the conference proposes to explore questions such as the following: What is origin of the very idea of “the mastery of nature”, and how does it differ from previous ideas about nature, and why did philosophy/science abandon the previous ideas? Does the aim or goal of a mastery of nature somehow condition the very principles and new conceptualizations of nature? How can we best understand the characteristic modern idea of a “law of nature” and the change in the concept of nature it entails? What is the place of the modern project in one of its first political fruits, the United States of America? How can we best understand the mutually implicating place of modern science and liberal democratic politics in the commercial republic: simply harmony, or potentially in tension? And how does it stand today – practically and theoretically – with the project of modern science and Enlightenment thought? Do we continue to conquer nature without limit, including our own natures, en route to some “transhuman” future or “singularity”? Would it be good to do so? Even if it would be good, will the project itself come up against limits, natural or conventional, and what would that portend?

Despite its obvious fruits, there seems to be at present a fundamental deceleration of the progress of modern natural science, along with the obfuscation of previous modes of understanding and wisdom. Could the project for mastering nature contain the seeds of its own decline? Perhaps, as some have claimed, the call to conquer nature fuses or confuses power and wisdom, science and technology, politics and metaphysics, opinion and knowledge in such a hybrid that the prospects for rational control are delusional–a new imaginary republic. Moreover, if there were flaws in the design of the Enlightenment we may even wonder whether, far from being the offspring of Promethean philosophers, the modern technological-ideological vision is the product of a tangled web of causes, or even of mysterious dispensations.  In the historical unfolding of the Enlightenment, the idea of the mastery of nature alternates between receiving large injections of hope and suffering withering setbacks.  Yet the apparent capacity of Enlightenment thought for auto-critique leaves it ambiguous if the problems of late modernity are due to defects inherent in the Enlightenment or to the misapplication or insufficient application of Enlightenment principles.  And yet despite repeated criticism, and even the declaration of crises, the idea of the mastery of nature sees no signs of abating. We may of course still wonder if the mastery is moving forward in the way that its founders intended, and moreover, if it is proceeding in the best way, and by which standard it is proceeding.

The MIT Benjamin Franklin Project will host a symposium and serve as the regional hub of a series of JMC-Templeton programs in a two day event devoted to these themes: with contributions from regional partner programs Yale, Boston College, Tufts, and Harvard, in addition to others.

A set of papers all focusing on arguments for and against mastery of nature, the alternatives, and the possibilities will be published as a volume.