Beyond the Domination of Nature: Towards the Dissolution of Instrumental Reason

Stream: Panel 80 - Political Theory: Living According to Nature: Aristotle, Stoicism, and the Frankfurt School
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm


The Enlightenment, utilising reason, sought to emancipate humanity from the unknown. Its architects hoped that the technical ‘mastery’ of an ostensibly ‘hostile’ and ‘stingy’ nature would liberate the species from scarcity. Yet, as the Frankfurt School’s analyses demonstrate, in this pursuit, the domination of nature itself becomes the principle end of social order. Divested of reflection about social ends, the totality of social life is organised around the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness. Thoroughly instrumentalised, reason lapses into irrationality. For the Frankfurt School, the social primacy of instrumental reason is the inexorable product of humanity’s impulse towards self-preservation in the face of a hostile nature. The domination of nature and a totalising instrumental reason appear inescapable; the totally administered, unfree social relations that emerge, historically inevitable. This paper deems this analysis one-sided and undialectical. Upon what I call ‘first reflection’, nature indeed appears as a harsh, hostile realm of necessity. However, the attempt to dominate nature contains the seed of its own negation, rebounding in the form of ecological crisis. The existential threat of ecological catastrophe affords human beings a moment of ‘second reflection’ in which the species might recognise nature as more than a mere object to be altered for human benefit, constituting also a subject with which to live in common. Through this dialectical account, the domination of nature and a totalising instrumental reason no longer appear inescapable. Freed from the perpetual push to dominate nature, reason is untethered from instrumentalism; its emancipatory potentialities revived anew.


Morgan Gibson (Presenter), University of Queensland
Morgan is a PhD student in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. His research interests include the Frankfurt School, anarchism, social movements and social theory.