Q&A

Understanding Nature with Dr Dalia Nassar

SEI editor Liberty Lawson sits down with the 2021 Iain McCalman Lecture keynote speaker Dr Dalia Nassar to talk about the philosophy-nature intersection and the naturalists who inspire her work.

Image by Josh Withers on Unsplash

Liberty Lawson: What attracted you to originally studying philosophy, and specifically the philosophy of nature?

Dalia Nassar: My interest in philosophy comes from a general interest in wanting to understand what it is to be human. I tried a few other majors before I settled on philosophy, and that was because philosophy does not simply have answers, but also, and more significantly, involves and supports the capacity to reflect critically on the answer and on the methods that were used to arrive at the answer.

I became interested in the philosophy of nature when I lived in Germany some fifteen years ago, and wrote a PhD on German philosophy of the nineteenth century. The combination of living in Germany, which is a very environmentally-aware country, and environmental activism is part of the daily routine, and studying the philosophers for whom nature was a crucial theme, both concretized my interest in the philosophy of nature and led me to specifically environmental questions. In the nineteenth century, philosophers were beginning to ask precisely those questions that have become foundation for contemporary environmental thought, including questions about our moral relation to the natural world, and the distinction between nature and culture.

Today, in western society, art and science seem as though they have always been polarised, but this hasn’t always been the case. How did creativity, aesthetics and artistic practices contribute to the Scientific Revolution?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the humanities and the natural sciences were not distinct and philosophers were writing on the natural sciences, and vice versa, “scientists” were writing about philosophy – without thinking twice that they were writing in an area beyond their expertise. While a lot of research on pre-twentieth century science has focused on how the natural sciences influenced the humanities, recent research has shed light on the way that the humanities, in particular the methods of the humanities, influenced the natural sciences.

The birth of ecology was deeply influenced by the humanities. If we trace the emergence of ecological thinking, of thinking of nature as a dynamic, evolving relationship between living beings and their contexts, we find that a shift occurred: away from seeing living beings as isolated, to seeing them as active members of an inhabited, dynamic world.

How did this shift happen? The crucial concept is world, a concept that comes from the humanities. We think of human beings as inhabiting a world, we think of cultures as expressing a world, we think of a book as manifesting a world. It was the transposition of this concept from the human sciences to the natural sciences that, I argue, resulted in this significant shift.

Johann Gottfried Herder was the first to speak of animal worlds, in his 1772 essay on the origin of language. Herder takes up the notion of world and argues that we can only understand animals in relation to their worlds: the world that they inhabit, and that inhabits them.

Some thirty years later, Alexander von Humboldt—who was influenced by Herder—makes the connection between the arts and the sciences even more explicit. In his writings on plant geography, he argues that the scientist must learn two things from the landscape painter: how to look at a landscape, and what to look for. Humboldt distinguishes the work of the plant geographer from that of the botanist by way of the landscape painter: like the landscape painter, the plant geographer (1) is not interested in the small parts of the plant, but in the most impressive parts; (2) does not consider the plant in isolation, but regards it in its larger context; and (3) does not divide and separate, but homes in on connections.

Like the landscape painter, the plant geographer focuses on the “blurry boundaries” between trees and forests, observes how trees “run into” one another, such that it is almost impossible to separate them, and in this way, begins to recognize that trees and forests are inseparable, and that it is impossible to see clearly where the individual tree begins and the forest ends.

Your upcoming keynote address at the 2021 Iain McCalman Lecture is centred around 18-19th century explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt – the father of modern ecology. Could you tell us a little about his life and contributions to science and philosophy?

Humboldt lived a long life, from 1769 to 1859. Upon the centenary of his birth, he was celebrated in cities across the world: from New York and Moscow, to Paris, Alexandria and Adelaide. He was called “the Shakespeare of the Sciences,” and influenced generations of scientists and artists.

As a scientist, Humboldt played a major role in the founding of fields such as bio-geography and ecology. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Humboldt’s work in contrast to later scientists is the fact that he took the arts very seriously in two ways. First, he regarded the arts as playing a significant role in shaping or forming our senses. The arts provide crucial tools for scientific investigation: landscape painting teaches the scientist how to look at a landscape, and what to look for.

Second, Humboldt himself composed works of art, which he called Naturgemälde – literally: nature-portraits. These are, however, not visual portraits, but literary ones. He composed essays that he described as having a “dual direction,” an aesthetic and a scientific one. This is because he believed that to truly understand nature it is not enough to intellectually discuss it, but also to feel what it is like to be in nature. He sought to convey the embodied experience of being in nature: what it is like to walk from the lush valleys of Caracas, to the dry steppes, or what it is like to hear the animals crying at night, or to stand in pouring rain for hours surrounded by crocodiles.

While, from a contemporary perspective, these vivid descriptions might seem secondary to knowledge, my claim is that knowledge has to be embodied. Only through an embodied knowledge can we really know rather than merely intellectual grasp.

In the introduction of Humboldt’s magnum opus, Cosmos, which spans astronomy, geography, history and aesthetics, he asserts that “the most important aim of all physical science is this: to recognise unity in diversity”. In today’s world, what might it take for us bring seemingly disparate disciplines – beyond even the arts and sciences – back into conversation, and to recognise their unity?

The statement in Cosmos describes Humboldt’s aim of capturing the natural world as a unity in diversity. This is because nature is neither just unity, nor just diversity, but a unity in diversity. This is actually quite a difficult concept for us to understand, because when we think of unity, we generally think of what I’d call a “simple” or “undifferentiated” unity. But that is not what nature is. It is differentiated. And Humboldt’s claim is that nature is a unity that emerges in and through difference.

But what does this look like? Is the unity an outcome of different beings coming together, or is it something more fundamental? Humboldt contends that it is fundamental. To get at what this means, I’ll offer two contrasting examples: a living body and a clock.

A living body is made up of different parts; each part has a distinctive function; and each of the parts can only function properly in tandem with the others. A heart needs lungs, and lungs need a heart. The one cannot exist without the other.

This is not the case for a clock. All of its parts can exist independently of one another. They emerge independently of one another. The relation between them is a relation of unity – but the unity is the outcome of someone bringing them together and assembling them. The different parts do not depend on one another in the same way.

By contrast, in a living body, the parts are absolutely interdependent, given that they can only exist with and through one another. This means that the unity between them somehow precedes them.

It is this kind of unity that Humboldt tries to find in nature as a whole. Living beings do not exist in isolation of one another, and then come together to form a whole. Rather, they exist in relation to one another, and the relation is what enables them to be what they are.

This, of course, is a founding insight of ecology. Each part plays a crucial, yet distinct role, in the whole. The parts did not emerge in isolation from one another, but in relation to one another, such that they are inscribed on one another. If you take one part out, then the other parts will collapse.


Dalia Nassar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy. She works on German romanticism and idealism, the philosophy of nature, aesthetics and environmental philosophy. Her current project focuses on a distinctive methodological approach to nature, which emerged in the late Enlightenment and Early Romanticism, and on the ways that this methodology can be brought to bear on current environmental questions and concerns.

She is the author of The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804, which considers the meaning of the crucial notion of the ‘Absolute’ in German philosophy between Kant and Hegel, and editor of the collection, The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy. She has also co-edited a special section of the Goethe Yearbook vol. 22 (2015) on ‘Goethe and Environmentalism’ and a focus section of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science on ‘Kant and the Empirical Sciences’ (2016).


Dalia will present the Inaugural Iain McCalman Lecture on 3 February, with her talk ‘Shallow and Deep Collaboration: Art, Ecology and Alexander von Humboldt’. Register for the event here.