NATURALISM. In the broadest sense, naturalism can denote any philosophy in which "nature" or "the natural" functions as the most general explanatory or normative concept. What counts as naturalism in a particular context depends upon how the term nature and its cognates are used. Given the long and varied history of such terms in Western thought, it should not be surprising that any two doctrines named "naturalism" may have little more than etymological connections in common.

Even in ancient Greece, "naturalism" designated several distinct positions. For the Cynics, naturalism consisted in severe condemnation of conventional values and artificial virtues. The virtuous man is one who lives naturally, but living naturally requires a rigorously ascetic practice in which all conventional and artificial goods are shunned. Stoic naturalism also sought detachment from the conventional and the artificial, and agreed that the virtuous man is one who lives naturally, but its conception of nature was articulated in an elaborate cosmology. Human nature, for the Stoics, is part of cosmic nature, and virtue is identified with conformity to natural law. Both Cynicism and Stoicism take us a great distance from Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who resisted any attempt to abstract the virtuous life from the polis but who nonetheless looked with favor upon something called "naturalism." Man, according to Aristotle, is by nature political, and this conviction leaves no room for the contrasts Cynics and Stoics need to define their positions. His naturalism, unlike theirs, was directed mainly against Eleatic skepticism about change and against the denial of "nature" and "natural motion" by Democritus (460–363? BCE) and others. Aristotle aimed to develop and defend natural science as knowledge of what exists "by nature." The nature of a thing, for him, is its power of acting in a particular determinate way, as defined by its end. The study of man is thus continuous with physics, for to study man is to study a specific kind of natural body by seeking out its nature. Man stands within nature, which is an intelligible, teleological order of motions. If Aristotle's philosophy is definitive of classical naturalism, then Democritus would surely qualify as an antinaturalist, despite his materialism, though both are routinely referred to as naturalists by modern writers. "Naturalism" later acquires specifically pejorative connotations in some Platonic, gnostic, and Christian writings, where the natural is contrasted with the spiritual in a way foreign to Aristotle and Democritus alike.

These ancient usages have had some impact on recent discussions of naturalism, mainly via Christianity, which transmitted an unstable amalgam of Hebraic, Stoic, Platonic, and Aristotelian conceptions of nature to the modern world. Nor can the rediscovery and dissemination of ancient writings since the late medieval period be entirely discounted as an influence. Still, modern debates over naturalism are best viewed as responses to the rise of modern science. The central point at issue is the scope of scientific inquiry as it is now practiced, and the basic terms of debate are set by the development of the sciences since 1600, not by conceptions of nature inherited from antiquity.

"Naturalism," when used as the name of a general philosophical outlook in contemporary discussion, usually signifies the view that all objects, truths, and facts fall within the scope of scientific inquiry, that nothing is in principle insusceptible to scientific explanation. This view may usefully be termed unrestricted naturalism. It differs from restricted forms of naturalism in that its thesis is not confined to a specific domain of inquiry, such as ethics. An ethical naturalist holds that ethical truths, facts, or values fall within the scope of scientific inquiry. As a form of restricted naturalism, ethical naturalism can be defended without committing oneself to the unrestricted position. Furthermore, one can accept a form of unrestricted naturalism without committing oneself to, say, ethical naturalism, provided one is prepared to deny that there are ethical truths, facts, or values in the relevant sense. To adopt a naturalistic attitude toward something is to maintain that it falls within the scope of scientific inquiry. Unrestricted naturalists sometimes argue, however, that failure to bring a domain of putative truths or facts within the scope of scientific inquiry shows only that there are no truths or facts to be found there, thus calling that domain, rather than the scope of science, into question. Such arguments can bring unrestricted naturalists into conflict with those defending naturalistic approaches in a specific area, a fact responsible for much terminological confusion, not least of all in debates over religion.

Many different conceptions of scientific inquiry and its findings have flourished in the modern period, and the content of both restricted and unrestricted forms of naturalism has varied accordingly. Where materialism has reigned as a philosophy of science, "naturalism" and "materialism" have tended to be used interchangeably, and Democritus has made his way onto lists of early naturalists. Materialist versions of naturalism define themselves polemically over against supernaturalism and idealism, neither of which is compatible with an ontology designed to reduce everything that exists and happens to matter in motion. That is, both supernaturalism and idealism postulate entities and occurrences that fall outside the scope of scientific inquiry as materialists conceive it. But it is important to see that scientific inquiry can be conceived in other ways and associated with other sorts of ontological assumptions.

A group of twentieth-century American philosophers known as critical naturalists has consistently gone out of its way to deny materialist methodological and ontological principles. Critical naturalists often cite Aristotle and Barukh Spinoza (1632–1677) as the great representatives of the naturalistic tradition. Some, like Frederick Woodbridge (1867–1940), have made extensive use of ideas from such figures in their own constructive projects. Many have tried to make room, within a naturalistic outlook, for the human phenomena—such as mind, intention, and culture—formerly claimed as the special province of the idealists. Some have argued that, because naturalistic methods place no a priori constraints on the types of hypotheses one may consider in science, acceptance of naturalism involves no bias against supernaturalist ontologies as such. Hence, in recent philosophy, as in the remainder of this article, "naturalism" is not tied to a particular ontology, though a naturalist in this sense remains bound to embrace whatever ontological scruples and commitments the course of scientific inquiry, rightly understood, entails.

The most common general charge leveled in the literature of the middle and late twentieth century against versions of unrestricted naturalism is that they cannot successfully account for themselves. Can naturalism account for itself without either falling into contradiction or arguing in a circle? Does naturalism in fact presuppose something that cannot be brought within the scope of scientific inquiry as naturalists construe it?

Taking these questions as their point of departure, some antinaturalists argue as follows. Naturalism is, in its unrestricted forms, a philosophical thesis about the validity and scope of scientific inquiry. How, then, is naturalism to be justified as a philosophical thesis? By appealing to scientific inquiry? That would be consistent with the naturalistic thesis, but it also seems circular. How can the validity and limitless scope of scientific inquiry be established by appealing to scientific inquiry itself without begging the question? It seems that it cannot, and what this shows is that any attempt to vindicate the naturalist's thesis without arguing in a circle necessarily makes an appeal to standards of judgment that do not belong to scientific inquiry per se. Hence, naturalism cannot be justified; the only noncircular means one could use in trying to justify it obviously contradicts it.

This line of argument may seem compelling, but it hardly forces naturalists to abandon their position. Does not the same problem arise for any standards or principles anyone might propose as valid and ultimate? If so, then naturalists are at least no worse off than their critics. The real question, naturalists will argue, is how critics intend to stop the regress of standards short of infinity without themselves arguing in a circle.

The antinaturalist can stop the regress, it would seem, only by invoking a set of standards that are self-justified, intuitively known, or demonstrably indispensable to rational thought as such. What, then, prevents naturalists from claiming similar status for the principles implicit in scientific practice? Once this question has been raised, naturalist and critic seem on equal footing: each seems to require arguments capable of certifying some set of principles as fundamental in the relevant sense. Furthermore, the debate can easily degenerate into a merely verbal dispute at this point, for it is not necessarily clear why the antinaturalist's principles cannot be said to be part of scientific method—namely, the foundational part.

Increasingly, however, naturalists have expressed skepticism about such notions as self-justification and intuitive knowledge, whether defended by other naturalists or by their critics. So they have sought a more radical response to the problem, arguing that scientific inquiry is just the honorific title given to the continuing process of rational criticism and revision of inherited theory and practice. This process, while perhaps best exemplified in the natural sciences, is not confined to them and is essentially continuous from field to field. It derives its justification not from foundational principles on which it rests but rather from the way it helps adaption to the environment through progressive self-correction. Justification is a dialectical affair directed toward the pragmatic resolution of problems. In this view, humankind is saved from infinite regress in justificatory arguments not by foundational principles but by the settling of real doubts, and if the process as a whole is circular, it is not viciously so. Naturalistic philosophy is simply scientific inquiry gone self-conscious, reflecting on itself. The great pragmatist, John Dewey (1859–1952), offered something like this defense and reformulation of naturalism, restated eloquently by W. V. O. Quine (1908–2000).

When some critics have charged naturalism with an inability to account for itself, they have argued somewhat differently from the way considered thus far. Their point is that defending naturalism and practicing science are human activities involving thought and purposeful behavior in the pursuit of values, and that naturalism is unequipped to account for any such activity. This argument challenges naturalists to show that they can explain thought, intention, and value without violating naturalistic scruples. But then unrestricted naturalism, to be vindicated, must ultimately be prepared to either explain or explain away every domain of putative objects, truths, or facts in naturalistic terms. So the appraisal of unrestricted naturalism must sooner or later take up each member in a long series of analyses of restricted topics, one of which is religion.

What can naturalists make of traditional religious utterances, such as the theist's discourse about God? Assume for the moment that some of what the theist says is to be interpreted as asserting the existence of a supernatural being who created the universe. If the theist is right in making this assertion, presumably, the naturalist will be obliged to show that God can be brought within the scope of scientific inquiry. The naturalist will, in other words, have to construct a "natural theology." Some naturalists, such as the eighteenth-century Deists, have adopted this strategy, but most have deemed it unsuccessful, concluding instead that no supernatural being exists. If no such being exists, naturalists need not be held responsible to account for its existence scientifically. The task, in that event, would be to explain God's existence away while still making sense of religious behavior, including the theist's utterances about God, reports of religious experience, and so on.

If, however, the theist's utterances about God are not to be taken as true assertions about a supernatural being, how shall they be taken? One alternative is to say that they are true but elliptical assertions about something else, something that does fall within the scope of science. Some followers of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1859–1917) argue, along these lines, that religious utterances are best interpreted as symbolic assertions about society, that the actual object of religious worship is the social group, and that religious behavior can be fully explained in a systematic science of society. Similar proposals have been developed by other theorists who take economics or psychology, not sociology, as the appropriate idiom of reduction.

A second alternative is to claim that the problematic religious utterances are not properly viewed as assertions in the strict sense at all. Instead, they are to be assimilated to some other class of speech-acts, such as expressions of emotions, wishes, or moral prescriptions. An example of this approach would be the emotivist theory of religious language popular among logical positivists.

Third, a naturalist may take the apparent assertions in religious discourse at face value while ascribing false beliefs to those who utter them, a strategy much simpler than the others but also one that raises the additional question of how these allegedly false beliefs came to be accepted. Here again at least two options suggest themselves. It may be argued, on the one hand, that religious assertions—while not to be construed as nonpropositional expressions of emotions or desires—are nonetheless determined by essentially nonrational forces in the human personality, society, or history. On the other hand, one could argue that religious beliefs, though now known to be false, arose under circumstances that tended to make them seem reasonable to reasonable people.

Those committed to defending traditional religious claims as true are not the only people interested in opposing the naturalist's attempts to explain religion. The other major source of antinaturalism in the study of religion is the claim, often made by thinkers in the hermeneutical tradition of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), that the objective procedures of scientific inquiry are insufficient for use in the study of human beings, least of all their religious and artistic self-expression. Human beings are, of course, objects within nature, and the naturalist's methods can teach a great deal about humankind as a natural species. But human beings are also spiritual, self-creating subjects. Understanding them involves determining the meaning that their behavior, verbal and nonverbal, has for them, and therefore calls for an interpretive approach distinct from the naturalist's explanatory methods.

Naturalists have responded to the hermeneutical tradition's antinaturalism in several ways. The most common sort of response can be seen in various attempts to reduce much of what hermeneutical theorists want to say about meaning and understanding to the languages of natural science. Critical and pragmatic naturalists move in another direction, accusing Dilthey and his followers of uncritically taking over unduly narrow conceptions of scientific inquiry from the materialists and positivists they otherwise oppose. Broaden the conception of scientific inquiry enough, and the line hermeneutical theorists have drawn between the natural sciences and humanistic studies (Naturwissenschaften and Geistes-wissenschaften) will disappear—as will the rationale for viewing hermeneutical philosophy and naturalism as exclusive alternatives.

Finally, it should be noted that some naturalists have been as interested in reconstructing religion as they have been in criticizing or explaining it. Dissatisfied with traditional religion on naturalistic grounds, they have attempted to devise religious systems capable of fulfilling the essential personal or social functions they assign to religion without departing from naturalism as a creed. The most ambitious such attempt was that of Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the French positivist, who took the rituals of Roman Catholicism as models for his own conception of the sacraments and identified humanity as the proper object of religious devotion and service. Dewey's proposals, in contrast, were much less ambitious and involved no attempt to found an organized religion. According to Dewey, any ultimate end that serves to unify one's life and actions takes on a religious quality. Dewey's aim was to portray this-worldly concern with "the problems of men" as the optimal religious ideal. There have been other recent attempts to reconstruct religion in naturalistic terms, but none has won much of a following.

Analytic Philosophy ; Deism ; Hermeneutics ; Logical Positivism ; Materialism ; Nature, article on Religious and Philosophical Speculations ; Positivism ; Science and Religion ; Sociology ; Supernatural, The .

The best place to begin a study of naturalism is with Naturalism and the Human Spirit, edited by Yervant H. Krikorian (New York, 1944), which includes characteristic essays by John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and John Herman Randall Jr., as well as an essay titled "Naturalism and Religion" by Sterling P. Lamprecht. No study of naturalism should end before taking up O. K. Bouwsma's essay "Naturalism," in his Philosophical Essays (Lincoln, Neb., 1965), pp. 71–83. George Santayana's five-volume work The Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress (New York, 1905–1906) exerted considerable influence on American naturalism in the early twentieth century and includes a notable treatment of religion. John Dewey's account of naturalized religion appears in his book A Common Faith (New Haven, 1934). The most comprehensive recent naturalistic reconstruction of religion is probably Julian Huxley's Religion without Revelation (1927; reprint, New York, 1958). The most influential twentieth-century attack on naturalism may well be Edmund Husserl's "Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft," Logos 1 (1910): 289–314. For classic statements of the hermeneutical tradition's antinaturalism, see Wilhelm Dilthey's Gesammelte Schriften, 2d ed. (Stuttgart, 1957–1960). W. V. O. Quine's pragmatic naturalism can be sampled in his Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, 1969). The concerns of the hermeneutical tradition from Dilthey to Hans-Georg Gadamer and of pragmatic naturalism from Dewey to Quine come together most clearly in Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979).

New Sources
Griffin, David Ray. Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts. Albany, N.Y., 2000.

Hardwick, Charley. Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology. New York, 1996.

Lawlor, Mary. Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West. New Brunswick, N.J., 2000.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York, 1989.

Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y., 2001.

Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. Carbondale, Ill., 1993.

Reich, Lou. Hume's Religious Naturalism. Lanham, Md., 1998.


Revised Bibliography

Source Citation Stout, Jeffrey. "Naturalism." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6428-6431.