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1. all natural phenomena and plant and animal life, as distinct from man and his creations
2. Biology the complement of genetic material that partly determines the structure of an organism; genotype
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in art, real natural objects (people, things, landscapes) that the artist directly observes while depicting them. The artist’s view of life and his creative aims are reflected in his selection of subjects from nature and his interpretation of them. Studies, sketches, and drawings, as well as portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, are often done directly from nature.



(1) In a broad sense, all that exists, the whole world in the multiplicity of its forms. As defined here, “nature” is on the same level as the concepts of “matter” and the “universe.”

(2) In a narrower sense, the object of science, or more precisely, the object of all study in the natural sciences (the “sciences of nature”). Each of the natural sciences studies a different aspect of nature and expresses the results of its research in universal but sufficiently specific laws, of the type exemplified by the laws of mechanics, which describe not nature per se but mechanical movement in nature.

“Nature” is a general concept that provides a frame of reference for understanding and explaining various specific subjects of study, such as space and time, movement, and causality. The general concept of “nature” is developed in the philosophy and methodology of science, which isolate its main characteristics, drawing on the results of research in the natural sciences. As an ultimate abstraction whose basic characteristics are universality, conformity to laws, and self-sufficiency, the concept of “nature” first achieved sociocultural importance during the Renaissance, in the struggle against religious dogmatism and medieval Scholasticism. (This line of development was dramatically expressed in the anthropocentric art of the Renaissance and in its materialist philosophical systems.) However, the concept’s sociocultural status was not consolidated until the establishment of experimental natural science in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Contemporary natural science has both inherited and significantly enriched the understanding of nature that developed in the modern era. This is evident in ideas concerning the development of nature, the specific laws governing nature’s development, the various forms of movement of matter, and the various structural levels in the organization of nature, as well as in the broadening of ideas about types of causal relationships. For example, the theory of relativity radically changed views on the spatial and temporal organization of objects in nature. The development of modern cosmology has enriched our ideas about the direction of natural processes, the achievements of elementary-particle physics have contributed to a significant broadening of the concept of “causality,” and progress in ecology has led to an understanding of the profound principles of the integrity of nature as a single, unified system. At the same time, as a result of the intensive development of the social sciences, the concept of “activity” has joined the concept of “nature,” playing an integrating role in cognition.

(3) The totality of the natural conditions under which human society exists. In this, the most widely used interpretation, the concept of “nature” refers less to nature per se or nature as the object of the sciences than to nature’s place and role in the system of man’s and society’s historically changing attitudes toward it. The concept of “nature” is used to designate not only the natural conditions of human existence but also the man-made, material ones (“second nature”). As K. Marx observed, the continuous exchange of substances between man and nature is the law regulating social production. Without this exchange, human life would be impossible (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, pp. 51, 514).

The real basis for man’s relationship to nature arises from human activity, which, in the final analysis, is always carried out in nature, with materials provided by nature. Therefore, throughout the history of society, changes in man’s relationship to nature have been determined by changes in the character, direction, and scale of human activity. Primitive man received an overwhelming proportion of his means of subsistence in ready or almost ready form from nature, and the products of his material activity were direct products of nature. Accordingly, the chief factor in the relationship of man and society to nature was direct consumption. The dominance of this type of relationship can be easily traced in the development of cultures based on livestock raising and land cultivation, where the final result of production retains its direct association with nature. The rather rigid spatial and temporal boundaries of human activity were also purely natural. Localized around weakly interconnected centers of culture, human activity reflected the powerful influence of geographic conditions. Its rhythm was dictated chiefly by diurnal and seasonal rhythms in nature. Consequently, the cycles of human activity corresponded, on the whole, to natural cycles.

This general outline of man’s relationship to nature changed little, even after the rise of the highly developed culture of classical antiquity. The fundamental structure of material activity, within which the real relationship between nature and society developed, remained virtually untouched. Obtaining and working natural materials continued to be the principal motives for material activity. The scale of the relationship between nature and society did not begin to change noticeably until modern times, in connection with the development of machine production, which demanded new types of raw materials and sources of energy and, consequently, a deeper penetration of nature’s “larder.” Man began to take more from nature and to do so in fundamentally different ways. Natural materials were not simply consumed but were processed in more and more far-reaching ways, acquiring new, extranatural properties. Consequently, in everything that was produced, the social properties created by human activity increasingly outweighed the natural properties. At this point, relations of consumption were replaced by relations of subjugating or conquering nature, as well as by the expanding exploitation of natural resources. This tendency was characteristic of the first industrial revolution, which was preceded by the epoch of great geographic discoveries, a period that contributed to a substantial increase in the volume and number of natural resources exploited.

Society was increasingly active in mastering and transforming natural space, creating specifically social forms of organization—“second nature,” or social space, the laws of which are determined not only by natural conditions but also, to an ever-increasing degree, by social labor. At the same time, the rhythm of human activity changed, losing its direct dependence on rhythms in nature.

Until the beginning of the modern scientific and technological revolution, the exploitation of nature was primarily extensive—that is, based on increasing the volume and varieties of the resources obtained from nature. The scale of society’s activity was virtually unrestricted by outside factors, or nature itself: man could take from nature as much as his productive forces allowed, “without rendering an account.”

By the mid-20th century this mode of exploitation began to approach a critical point simultaneously in several respects. The scale on which the traditional sources of energy and raw materials were consumed became comparable to the total remaining reserves of these resources. As a result of rapid population growth, the same condition developed with regard to the natural base for food production. The activity of human society is exerting an increasingly noticeable effect on nature, clearly infringing on natural mechanisms of self-regulation and radically altering the conditions under which organic matter exists. All of this creates an objectively natural basis and necessity for a transition from extensive to intensive exploitation of nature—that is, to a fuller, more efficient, and more varied utilization of natural resources. From the standpoint of society, the necessity for such a transition is reinforced by a change in the character of human activity, which can no longer develop spontaneously under the influence of its own inner logic. Human activity must be regulated, because the material and natural conditions for it are limited. In contemporary society, the instrument for the regulation of human activity is science—the principal tool for the intensification and rationalization of production and for the planned restructuring of the material relations between man and nature. Modern activity is becoming more and more consistently oriented toward science. As a result, a new type of relationship is developing between nature and society—a relationship of global regulation, embracing processes in nature and the activity of society as a whole and presupposing the elaboration of rational programs for the activity of society. These programs take into account the kinds and limits of permissible action on nature, as well as the need for the preservation and reproduction of nature. Increasingly, nature is becoming an essential and wisely regulated component of the social organism.

However, the process of the development of a rational relationship between society and nature varies, depending on socioeconomic conditions. The founders of Marxism pointed out that capitalism gives rise to a rapacious attitude toward nature, based on the domination of private, individualistic interests. As Marx noted, if culture progresses spontaneously and is not consciously directed, it leaves behind it a desert (ibid., vol. 32, p. 45). The practical experience of modern capitalism is evidence that the bourgeois system creates serious obstacles to the rational regulation of nature. It is therefore confronted by various global crises (in ecology and energy, for example). By contrast, the very essence of the socialist system contributes to the rationalization of the relationship between nature and society and to a judicious regulation of nature.

“Socialized man and the associated producers rationally regulate … their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control,… and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable, and worthy of, their human nature” (K. Marx, ibid, vol. 25, part 2, p. 387). Of course, this does not mean that the principle of rational regulation can be realized automatically: it demands extensive and active efforts.

The development of the forms of human activity also determined changes in man’s intellectual and theoretical relation to nature. However, these changes were directly brought about not by the forms of material production but by their refraction in the forms of intellectual activity. Primitive man, almost completely merged with nature, commonly endowed natural objects with spirits (animism). The world of nature appeared to be the world of man; mythology did not yet have a foundation for juxtaposing man and nature. A strictly theoretical attitude toward nature first developed with the separation of philosophy from mythology—that is, with the appearance of theoretical thinking. On the level of values, the theoretical attitude proved to be dualistic. The part of nature that had been drawn into human activity was treated from a utilitarian and pragmatic viewpoint, as a consumption value, a source of resources for man, and a habitat. (This valuational position has survived into the mid-20th century.) On the other hand, nature as a whole was long regarded as a force immeasurably superior to man and, therefore, as an ideal of harmony and perfection not created by human hands.

The same type of valuational attitude determined the direction of theoretical speculations about nature. Throughout classical philosophy, nature is treated as perfection, as the focal point of the Logos. The approaches to this interpretation are extremely diverse. For example, Pythagoras viewed the world and nature as harmony and absolutely perfect order; Democritus viewed them as the kingdom of elemental forces. Plato took a specific position, anticipating Christianity’s attitude in his interpretation of nature as a pale reflection of an ideal world transcending the material world. Classical thought characteristically treated nature as a standard of organization and a model of wisdom, and usually considered the life lived in accordance with nature and its laws to be the best and the most desirable. In other words, nature was elevated above theoretical thinking as something superior, boundless, inexhaustible, and, in its wholeness, accessible only in an ideal form. An analogous attitude is encountered in other cultures in which theoretical thinking has developed (for example, the Indian and Chinese cultures).

A fundamentally different attitude toward nature developed with the establishment of Christianity, which regarded nature as the embodiment of the material principle, as the “here below,” where all is transient and changeable. A sharp distinction is drawn between the eternal, absolute, spiritual principle—god, who stands absolutely above nature—and the earthly, or nature. Unlike antiquity, Christianity stressed not merging with nature but transcending it.

The Renaissance marked a return to classical ideals in interpreting nature and everything natural as the embodiment of harmony and perfection. Later, this view reappeared in a wide variety of contexts, particularly in the concept of “natural rights” (J.-J. Rousseau, for example), which derived human rights from the natural laws of human society. Nature was also equated with harmony and perfection by a number of literary and philosophical schools, which promoted the slogan “back to nature,” regarding nature as the only salvation from the destructive effects of the bourgeois order.

In modern times, this idealistic attitude toward nature played a considerable role in transforming nature into an object of scientific study. However, the original pattern of an idealized, poeticized attitude toward nature was radically transformed as science developed and as man began to master nature by means of industry. Experimental natural science advanced the idea of “testing” nature. In relation to human cognition and action, nature became an object, a sphere of activity, and a mute, inert force that had to be conquered and subordinated to the rule of reason.

This attitude toward nature survives until the domination of nature begins to become a reality. When the world created by human activity becomes commensurate with the world of nature—that is, when the activity of society attains a planetary scale and becomes comparable in volume to the scale of processes in nature—the utilitarian, pragmatic attitude toward nature gradually ceases to be self-sufficient and unlimited and is supplemented by a realization of the growing dependence of nature on man and on human activity. Based on this realization, a new, sociohistorical evaluation of nature emerges, taking as its point of departure an appreciation of nature as the unique and universal abode of man and human culture. Such an appreciation presupposes a responsible attitude toward nature, continuous coordination of the needs of society with nature’s capacity to satisfy them, and consideration of the important fact that mankind is part of nature.

On the scientific and theoretical level the reorientation of values has been reflected in a shift from the idea of absolute domination over nature to the idea of a relationship between society and nature as partners of equal potential. The first theoretical expression of this position was V. I. Vernadskii’s concept of the “noosphere.” Awareness of the potential and in some respects, actual) superiority of society to nature has gradually, though by no means painlessly, given rise to a new approach based on the idea of unified, balanced, and responsible regulation of social and natural processes and conditions. In the second half of the 20th century this approach has become more popular and has begun to serve as the basis for regulating human activity and the entire system of practical relations between society and nature, including measures for conservation and for environmental protection.

However, the process of putting society’s relation with nature on a rational foundation is still far from universal. Pollution of the environment and rapacious exploitation of natural resources persist in a number of countries. As a result, ecological pessimism has become widespread in the West. Proceeding from the assumption that human activity results in irreversible destruction in nature, ecological pessimism (in its extreme forms) demands cutbacks in technology. In the capitalist countries, this point of view is fostered not only by the existence of unsolved problems in the rationalization of the relation between society and nature but also by the very character of the social system. The experience of socialism shows that a society based on social property is in a position to regulate its relationship with nature intelligently. Although it is by no means possible to solve all problems at once, a planned approach guarantees success and deprives ecological pessimism of its social base.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about nature?

Nature symbolizes life-giving forces—freedom, restoration, renewal. It suggests that one’s basic instincts are experienced and expressed. Peace, calmness, simplicity, and tranquility can be denoted by this symbol.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


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