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Columns

The Body of God: Wright, Serre, and Nature Study

By Courtesy of David R. Cerbone
By Henry A. Cerbone, Contributing Opinion Writer
Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column "Academic Flotsam" appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Those who read philosophy will often notice a recurring mention of nature. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have their states of nature. Hegel has a philosophy of nature. Nietzsche stresses the importance of interpreting nature. Ancient Chinese philosophers see the structure of language as being reflective of the structure of nature. This is an arbitrarily formed list: Readers will surely have other examples spring to mind. This incessant talk of nature throughout the history of the field of philosophy should serve as a tip off that nature is worth thinking about.

The mention of nature, or should I say Nature, that I would like to focus on comes from an interview given by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “There is no school that is worth its existence, except as it is a form of Nature study,” he says. Going even further, he describes this capital n Nature as being, “all the body of God that we’re ever going to see.” It is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on whether our own, or your own, course of study is a form of Nature study. In order to do this, we must first understand just what Wright means.

Let us first think about the role that nature (or Nature) has likely played for us. Nature acts as the great humbler in our lives. But also, the great supporter. Our first love, and our first enemy. Nature brings wonders such as snow when we are children. It gets us out of going to school. It provides bugs, birds, and legged animals for us to be in awe over. It also brings storms and lightning and deadly disasters. Events that bring us disappointment and fear and tragedy. Nature does all of these things with complete indifference. Reminding us that we are simply here. We are not consequential.

Despite this potentially dour affectation of nature, I have always been in love with n/Nature. This is surely inspired by my upbringing in rural West Virginia. From years of being surrounded by natural beauty. By the feeling of breathlessness that to this day accompanies the feeling of looking out over the river by my childhood home.

I can navigate to that particular spot with my eyes closed. You walk across the field. Down into the inlet. Across to the first island. If you go around, you won’t get your clothes wet. Make the leap over the notch the water has carved in the pointed edge of the first island. And when you walk out on the edge, that is when it hits you. The clouds. The sweeping mountain scene. The blue sky. The expanse. You are hit with a feeling of being unimportant in the most beautiful way. No matter what you do, that scene will be there. And you realize that not mattering is exactly what you needed in that moment. Sometimes, we must be reminded that we are not the center of the world.

In keeping with this existential Copernican revolution, we can look to our own Harvard Yard for a similar sentiment. “What is man that thou art mindful of him.” This is inscribed on Emerson Hall, the philosophy building at Harvard. The message is something that any good naturalist should adhere to. A thought surely had by anyone who has gazed upon a scene such as my mountain vista. This is edging closer to Wright’s Nature. The Nature that is the only body of God we are ever going to get to see.

For those readers who are thinking to themselves, “There is no way I am going to study biology,” let us return to providing a definition of Nature study. A useful, analogous sentiment to that of Wright’s can be sourced from mathematician Jean-Pierre Serre: “While other sciences search for the rules that God has chosen for the Universe, we Mathematicians search for the rules that even God has to obey.”

In Serre’s line, we see a shift from regarding nature as merely the things outdoors to what Wright wants us to see it as: the root of our experienced phenomena. Nature study can therefore occur in something as seemingly far removed as abstract, pure mathematics or something as applied as computational microbiology.

The motivation for this kind of study is the awe and wonder that can be felt standing at the edge of my river. Or the feeling of amazement when you complete a math proof. Or when you finish a breathtaking novel. There is not a set list of forms of Nature study. You will not find it as an addendum to your university’s course of study listing.

Wright gives no further guideline of what to study, to do so would in a sense be ludicrous. Instead, he leaves it as an exercise to us to ensure that what we are doing, that the education we are receiving, is a form of Nature study.

Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column "Academic Flotsam" appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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