The uses of ‘nature’ and the nonhuman world in social theory: pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment accounts
The aim of this chapter is to outline some of the ways in which the nonhuman world, its entities, processes and principles have been used (and abused) within the history of social theory. Of particular importance is the ways in which social theorists have appealed to some notion of the ‘natural order’ or ‘nature’ to justify, legitimate or illustrate their theories about and prescriptions for the social order. Just as religious thought both in Europe and elsewhere looked to nature for metaphors and lessons for illustrations of God’s laws or plans for humans, modern social theory since the Enlightenment has also made both positive and negative references to the nonhuman world. The idea of nature as a ‘text’, such as ‘God’s book’, or like a book from which we can read, if we know (through science or mystical experience) the language of nature or source of meaning (as opposed to simply a store of means to human ends), is something that has a very long history and is an enduring feature of human thought.