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Related to naturalism: realism


in art, a tendency toward strict adherence to the physical appearance of nature and rejection of ideal forms. Artists as diverse as VelázquezVelázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y
, 1599–1660, b. Seville. He was the most celebrated painter of the Spanish school. Early Life and Work
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, J. F. MilletMillet, Jean François,
1814–75, French painter. He was born into a poor farming family. In 1837 an award enabled him to go to Paris, where he studied with Delaroche.
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, and MonetMonet, Claude
, 1840–1926, French landscape painter, b. Paris. Monet was a founder of impressionism. He adhered to its principles throughout his long career and is considered the most consistently representative painter of the school as well as one of the foremost painters
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, have followed naturalistic principles.


in literature, an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces, e.g., heredity, environment, physical drives. The chief literary theorist on naturalism was Émile ZolaZola, Émile
, 1840–1902, French novelist, b. Paris. He was a professional writer, earning his living through journalism and his novels. About 1870 he became the apologist for and most significant exponent of French naturalism, a literary school that maintained that
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, who said in his essay Le Roman expérimental (1880) that the novelist should be like the scientist, examining dispassionately various phenomena in life and drawing indisputable conclusions. The naturalists tended to concern themselves with the harsh, often sordid, aspects of life. Notable naturalists include the GoncourtGoncourt, Edmond Louis Antoine Huot de
, 1822–96, and Jules Alfred Huot de Goncourt , 1830–70, French authors. Brothers, they were known, for their close association in art and literature, as "les deux Goncourt.
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 brothers, J. K. HuysmansHuysmans, Joris Karl
, 1848–1907, French novelist and art critic of Dutch family. He was at first a disciple of Zola; typical of his early, naturalistic novels is Marthe (1876).
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, MaupassantMaupassant, Guy de
, 1850–93, French novelist and short-story writer, of an ancient Norman family. He worked in a government office at Paris and became known c.1880 as the most brilliant of the circle of Zola.
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, the English authors George MooreMoore, George,
1852–1933, English author, b. Ireland. As a young man he lived in Paris, studying at various art schools. Inspired by Zola, Flaubert, Turgenev, and the 19th-century French realists, Moore turned to writing, publishing his first novel, A Modern Lover,
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 and George GissingGissing, George
, 1857–1903, English novelist. His promising future as a scholar was curtailed by his expulsion from Owens College (later the Univ. of Manchester) because of his association with a young prostitute whom he later married.
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, and the American writers Theodore DreiserDreiser, Theodore
, 1871–1945, American novelist, b. Terre Haute, Ind. A pioneer of naturalism in American literature, Dreiser wrote novels reflecting his mechanistic view of life, a concept that held humanity as the victim of such ungovernable forces as economics,
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, Frank NorrisNorris, Frank
(Benjamin Franklin Norris), 1870–1902, American novelist, b. Chicago. After studying in Paris, at the Univ. of California (1890–94), and at Harvard, he spent several years as a war correspondent in South Africa (1895–96) and Cuba (1898).
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, Stephen CraneCrane, Stephen,
1871–1900, American novelist, poet, and short-story writer, b. Newark, N.J. Often designated the first modern American writer, Crane is ranked among the authors who introduced realism into American literature.
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, James T. FarrellFarrell, James Thomas
, 1904–79, American novelist, b. Chicago. In his fiction Farrell expressed anger against the brutal economic and social conditions that produce emotional and material poverty.
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, and James JonesJones, James,
1921–77, American novelist, b. Robinson, Ill. Written in the tradition of naturalism, his novels often celebrate the endurance of man. From Here to Eternity
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. In the drama, naturalism developed in the late 19th cent. By stressing photographic detail in scene design, costume, and acting technique, it attempted to abolish the artificial theatricality prominent in 19th-century theater. The movement was most closely associated with the Théâtre Libre (founded 1887) of André AntoineAntoine, André
, 1858–1943, French theatrical director, manager, and critic. In opposition to the teachings of the Paris Conservatory, he formed (1887) his own company, the Théâtre Libre.
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, with the Freie Bühne (founded 1889) of Otto BrahmBrahm, Otto
, 1856–1912, German theatrical director, manager and critic. Inspired by the work of Antoine in Paris, he founded a theater, the Freie Bühne, in Berlin in 1889.
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, and with the Moscow Art Theatre (founded 1898) under the direction of StanislavskyStanislavsky, Constantin
, 1863–1938, Russian theatrical director, teacher, and actor, whose original name was Constantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev. He was cofounder with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, which he would remain associated with for
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. Notable naturalistic dramatists include BecqueBecque, Henry François
, 1837–99, French dramatist. His plays, which portrayed Parisian life in realistic detail, influenced French naturalistic drama. Among them are Les Corbeaux (1882) and La Parisienne (1885), translated in the volume
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, Brieux, HauptmannHauptmann, Gerhart
, 1862–1946, German dramatist, novelist, and poet. He showed the influence of the theories of Zola and the plays of Ibsen in his play Before Dawn (1889, tr.
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, and GorkyGorky, Maxim or Maksim
[Rus.,=Maxim the Bitter], pseud. of Aleksey Maximovich Pyeshkov,
1868–1936, Russian writer, b. Nizhny Novgorod (named Gorky, 1932–91).
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See studies by J. Howard (1985) and W. B. Michaels (1988).


in philosophy, a position that attempts to explain all phenomena and account for all values by means of strictly natural (as opposed to supernatural) categories. The particular meaning of naturalism varies with what is opposed to it. It is usually considered the opposite of idealismidealism,
the attitude that places special value on ideas and ideals as products of the mind, in comparison with the world as perceived through the senses. In art idealism is the tendency to represent things as aesthetic sensibility would have them rather than as they are.
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, is sometimes equated with empiricismempiricism
[Gr.,=experience], philosophical doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience. For most empiricists, experience includes inner experience—reflection upon the mind and its operations—as well as sense perception.
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 or materialismmaterialism,
in philosophy, a widely held system of thought that explains the nature of the world as entirely dependent on matter, the fundamental and final reality beyond which nothing need be sought.
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, and is not easily distinguished from positivismpositivism
, philosophical doctrine that denies any validity to speculation or metaphysics. Sometimes associated with empiricism, positivism maintains that metaphysical questions are unanswerable and that the only knowledge is scientific knowledge.
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. Naturalism limits itself to a search for causes and takes little account of reasons. Naturalism in the broad sense has been maintained in diverse forms by Aristotle, the Cynics, the Stoics, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, Auguste Comte, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, William James, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead, philosophers who differ widely on specific questions. Some, like Comte and Nietzsche, were professed atheists, while others accepted a god in pantheistic terms. Aristotle, James, and Dewey all attempted to explain phenomena in terms of biological processes of perception; Spinoza and the idealists tended to emphasize metaphysics; later thinkers of all schools have placed emphasis on unifying the scientific viewpoint with an all-encompassing reality. This amalgamation of science and an overall explanation of the universe in naturalistic terms is the source of much of contemporary philosophic thought.


See J. M. Ferreira, Skepticism and Reasonable Doubt (1987); P. F. Strawson, Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A school in literature and art that developed in Europe and the USA in the last third of the 19th century. Naturalism strove for an objective, precise, and dispassionate reproduction of observed reality. It focused on the human character as determined by physiology and by the environment, which was defined primarily as the immediate, everyday, material surroundings but which did not exclude sociohistorical factors of general significance. (Such factors were characteristic of the realism of Balzac and Stendhal.)

Naturalism emerged under the influence of important advances in the natural sciences, the methodology of which clearly contradicted unscientific methods of cognition. The aesthetics of naturalism is oriented toward the natural sciences, particularly physiology. Its goal—the “experimental” (scientific) study of the human character—presupposed the introduction of scientific methods of cognition into artistic creation. The artistic work was regarded as a “human document,” and the completeness of the cognitive act accomplished in the work was considered the main aesthetic criterion.

Naturalism, the philosophical foundation of which was the positivism of A. Comte and the aesthetic theories of H. Taine, originated in France. Its literary precursors were J. Champfleury, L. E. Duranty, the brothers E. de Goncourt and J. de Goncourt, and G. Flaubert, whose works were perceived as an example of objective, “scientific” art. However, naturalism attained its final form in the works of E. Zola, who elaborated the theory of naturalism (the collections The Experimental Novel [1880], Naturalist Novelists [1881], and Naturalism in the Theater [1881]) and attempted to put it into practice. A naturalistic school pervaded with internal contradictions and literary struggle developed around Zola in the mid-1870’s. Among its members were G. de Maupassant, J. K. Huysmans, H. Ceard, L. Hennique, P. Alexis, E. de Goncourt, and A. Daudet. O. Mir-beau, the Rosny brothers, the brothers V. Margueritte and P. Margueritte, L. Descaves, and the dramatist H. F. Becque also gravitated toward naturalism. The naturalistic school broke up at the end of the 1880’s, when it lost the clarity of its theoretical principles. The term “naturalism” became the general designation for different literary phenomena of related origins. In the works of a number of naturalistic writers, impressionistic features grew stronger. The reaction of other writers against naturalism was expressed in a predilection for symbolism. Motifs of decadence began to pervade the works of many naturalistic writers.

In naturalistic literature artistic truth is limited by the insistence on studying society from the standpoint of the natural scientist, by the assimilation of artistic to scientific cognition, by the emphasis on the physiological bases of the personality, and by distrust for any kind of ideology, which was viewed as “romantic delusions.” Nonetheless, the truth of life so fervently sought by the naturalists intruded into their works, overturning their artificial theoretical constructs and, in many cases, having a profound artistic effect. Declaring his intention to provide “the natural and social history of one family” in the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola subordinated the characters and fates of his heroes more to social than to “natural” factors. The theme of heredity yielded to concrete investigations of social relationships. The study of the everyday material environment, in which naturalism saw the key to understanding the human psyche, often led to a revelation of the class character of consciousness. In describing the everyday life and working conditions of the Maheu family in the novel Germinal, Zola revealed the sources of the conflicts that give rise to the class struggle. In the novel Earth he exposed the social roots of the psychology of the peasant proprietor.

The determinism characteristic of naturalism often led to fatalism. Only a few writers managed to overcome a belief in the fateful determination of man’s lot by his physiology and material environment and a belief in man’s foreordained lack of free will. Motivated by his belief in science, knowledge, and social progress, Zola studied the mode of interaction between the environment and man, striving to discover a means of actively influencing the environment to bring about a more rational organization of society. But other writers—especially Huysmans, and Maupassant in his later years—adhered to a predominantly pessimistic belief in the unchangeable quality of human nature and the futility of efforts directed at improving society.

In comparing literature to science, the naturalists rejected tendentiousness, which they equated with moralizing. They believed that the reality they were describing with scientific detachment was, in itself, sufficiently expressive. For some naturalistic writers, however, “detachment” became a justification for social indifference and abandonment of ideological struggle for the world of positive facts and neutral truths. The naturalists believed that literature, like science, had no right to choose its material—that is, there were no inappropriate or unworthy themes. This attitude led to a significant expansion of the themes of naturalistic art and to an interest in the “rude truth” of life, which in practice meant the life of the poor and oppressed (for example, Germinie Lacerteux, by the Goncourts, and Zola’s L ’Assommoir). However, the desire to subordinate themselves to the material and to write “at the dictation of life” often led the “orthodox naturalists” to a plotless “stream of life” (for example, Ceard’s A Beautiful Day and Huysmans’ Down Stream).

From the 1860’s through the 1880’s naturalism played a positive role in artistic creation. It established new themes, including the struggle of the industrial working class, and it focused attention on previously overlooked aspects of reality, including the life of “social organisms” such as the factory or store. It studied the interaction between the individual and the crowd and stressed the role of the subconscious in human psychology. New techniques and means of artistic description were introduced into literature by naturalism. By entering into the struggle against official optimism and petit bourgeois ideology and morality and by displaying democratism and critical, muckraking tendencies, naturalism contributed to progress in social thought and artistic vision.

Outside France, the term “naturalism” came to designate similar phenomena that were engendered by national social and literary needs but understood in the light of the French experience. In Germany naturalism strove to immerse itself in contemporary social life, seeking to achieve merciless truthfulness in depicting any and all aspects of reality. Naturalism brought new life to the themes, problems, and poetics of German literature, in many ways determining the direction of its development in the 20th century. The anticapitalist, sometimes socialist orientation of many works of German naturalism cannot be denied. The work of the critics H. Hart and J. Hart was the prologue to German naturalism, which reached its peak in the works of A. Holz. Two dramas by G. Hauptmann, Before Sunrise and The Weavers, were a major achievement of the movement.

In Great Britain naturalism influenced the work of G. Moore and G. Gissing, and in the USA it took on a sharp social tone in the works of S. Crane, F. Norris, and H. Garland. Verismo, an Italian literary movement analogous to naturalism, was represented by G. Verga, L. Capuana, and D. Ciampoli. In Spain, a struggle against French literary influence was combined with an affirmation of the principles of naturalism in the works of E. Pardo Bazán and A. Palacio Valdés. C. Lemonnier was the chief representative of naturalism in Belgium. Naturalism also had some influence on A. Strindberg, H. Ibsen, and K. Hamsun.

In Russia the term “naturalism” was not in general use. Nonetheless, naturalistic principles of artistic sociological investigation, complicated by the idea of biological heredity, were expressed in the works of a number of late-19th century writers, especially D. N. Mamin-Sibiriak’s novels. Open imitation of French naturalism characterizes certain works by P. D. Boborykin, an active propagandist of the works of Zola and the Goncourt brothers.

In drama the naturalists’ chief demands were “to experience, not play” a dramatic work; to study life and to pursue historical, social, and psychological truth; and to re-create precisely the milieu of the characters. Zola urged that theater be brought closer to social reality and called for the creation of individualized, lifelike characters, including some based on the common people.

Struggling against the conventionality and professional clichés of the 19th-century theater, the proponents of naturalism endeavored to treat the dramatic production as a “slice of life” transferred to the stage. Original dramas and adaptations of literary works depicted the life of the déclassé strata of society —the victims of prostitution and individuals crushed by poverty. However, this type of theater poorly revealed the social character of phenomena. Its most typical features were a biological interpretation of actions and a heightened interest in the morbid phenomena of the human mind. The most prominent representatives of naturalism in drama included the directors A. Antoine (France) and O. Brahm (Germany) and the actors E. Zacconi (Italy) and P. N. Orlenev (Russia). In the late 19th century the most extreme manifestation of naturalism emerged—theatrical productions saturated with “horrors.”

The multifaceted and socially significant work of the leading representatives of naturalism in literature, particularly Zola and Hauptmann, had many analogues in the representational arts and directly influenced a number of artists of the last third of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In France this group of artists included E. Degas, H. Toulouse-Lautrec, and T. Steinlen, as well as E. Manet, whose work was praised in Zola’s critical articles. Manet painted Zola’s portrait and the picture Nana. In Belgium, C. Meunier and P. Paulus were among the artists most influenced by naturalism; in Germany M. Liebermann, H. von Bartels, R. Sterl, and K. Kollwitz; and in Italy, V. Vela and other representatives of verismo. Naturalism shared with impressionistic painting a striving for maximum visual truthfulness in the re-creation of life. In addition, naturalism was associated with a broadening of the range of social phenomena depicted in art. For example, the images of an oppressed and struggling proletariat found in works by Steinlen and Meunier are in many ways consonant with Zola’s Germinal, and Kollwitz’ The Revolt of the Weavers was influenced by Hauptmann’s The Weavers. However, in the history of representational art, the term “naturalism” is also associated with phenomena that differ greatly from those linked with the literary term. “Naturalism” originally referred to a specific historical literary school but evolved to include phenomena less closely associated with it.

(2) Ideological and stylistic trends generated by bourgeois culture; also, an artistic method opposed to realism and expressed in the reproduction of life’s phenomena without reference to any sociophilosophical understanding, artistic generalization, or critical selection and evaluation.

One of the trends in the theory and practice of the naturalistic school was the replacement of social typification and the social evaluation of life’s phenomena with a “dispassionate” depiction of facts and events. Consequently, a number of theorists and critics juxtaposed naturalism to critical realism, defining the former as art that stood outside of social, aesthetic, and ethical norms and perceived life without analyzing it in the light of social, philosophical, or other concepts. The apologia of “detachment,” which was criticized by P. Lafargue (France), F. Mehring (Germany), and L. Tolstoy, M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, and V. G. Korolenko (Russia), appeared to be an ideological justification for superficial, uninspired depiction and passive copying of secondary details, which had long since become a tradition in bourgeois 19th-century art. In the 1820’s and 1830’s these features appeared in European art, and later, in American art, assuming a programmatic character in works by the French painters H. P. Delaroche and H. Vernet. Combining readily with academic idealization, superficiality of depiction and passive copying of minor details gave rise to many varieties of salon art. This kind of flat, unprincipled art, which was later referred to as naturalistic, became widespread in the mid-19th century. Characteristic of it was the “debasement” of historical, religious, and allegorical genres, with the deliberate reduction of traditionally lofty ideas to prosaic ordinariness, to certifiable everyday fact. The works of J. L. E. Meissonier (France), F. von Uhde (Germany), and L. Frederic (Belgium) exemplify this trend.

The term “naturalism” also became associated with a penchant for excessively detailed depiction of gloomy, morbid phenomena, especially scenes of cruelty, violence, and the repulsive details of sexuality. Later, this tendency became overdeveloped in certain schools of modernism and particularly in the mass culture of the bourgeois world. An antisocial, biological approach to man, which is characteristic of many manifestations of decadence, is also referred to as “naturalism.” Among the most extreme manifestations of bestial biologism in art were the racist depictions of “supermen” and the cult of aggressive, barbarous strength characteristic of the art of fascist and other extremely reactionary regimes. Twentieth-century bourgeois artists, particularly the surrealists, became fascinated with describing deformities and pathological details. Exaggeratedly accurate copying of external details also became a preoccupation of bourgeois artists. Modern “photorealism,” with its illusionary reproduction of a subject and its surroundings, is an example of this tendency.

In the history of Soviet culture, “naturalism” has come to be regarded as the antonym of “realism” and as a term juxtaposed to all artistic creativity in general and designating a minutely detailed depiction of reality, dispassionate factualism, and external verisimilitude that replaces the true typification and characterization of phenomena. In this sense, “naturalism” refers simultaneously to the artist’s passive contemplation of social status, his understanding of the creative act as simple imitation, and the reduction of artistic manner and style to a petty copying of life. “Naturalism” also means an absorption with repulsive, vulgar, or dull, prosaic, everyday life and an obsession with depicting human physiology. A. V. Lunacharskii and M. Gorky repeatedly criticized manifestations of this type of naturalism as alien to the art of socialist realism.


Boborykin, P. D. Evropeiskii roman ν 19 stoletii. St. Petersburg, 1900.
Mehring, F. Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i. Moscow Leningrad, 1964.
Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959.
Istoriia nemetskoi literatury, vol. 4. Moscow, 1968.
Tager, E. B. “Problemy realizma i naturalizma.” In Russkaia literatura kontsa 19-nachala 20 v. Moscow, 1968.
Frierson, W. C. L’Influence du naturalisme français sur les romanciers anglais... Paris, 1925.
Hlauschek, H. Der Entwicklungsbegriff in den theoretisch-program-matischen Schriften des friihen Naturalismus. Vienna, 1941.
Beuchat, C. Histoire du naturalisme français, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1949–50.
Ahnebrink, L. The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction. Uppsala-Cambridge, 1950.
Walcutt, C. American Literary Naturalism, a Divided Stream. Minneapolis, 1956.
Hamann, R., and J. Hermand. Naturalismus. Berlin, 1959.
Dumesnil, R. Le Réalisme et le naturalisme. Paris, 1965. Pomilio, M. Dal naturalismo al verismo. [Naples, 1966.]

G. S. AVESSALOMOVA AND A. M. KANTOR (naturalism in literature)



in philosophy, a view of the world that regards nature as a single, universal principle capable of providing a scientific explanation for everything that exists; all recourse to “supernatural” explanations is rejected. Since the concept of nature is interpreted in different ways, naturalism is characteristic both of certain varieties of materialism (spontaneous, natural-scientific, mechanistic, vulgar) and of certain idealistic currents endowing nature with immanently inherent animation (panpsychism) or spirituality (pantheism).

In sociology, naturalism is characteristic of theories that explain the development of society in terms of various natural factors, for example, climatic conditions and the geographic environment (geographic school) or biological and racial features of people (biological school in sociology). In ethics, naturalism infers principles of morality from natural sources (space, the organic world, biology, human psychology). Naturalism is characteristic of such ethical currents as hedonism, eudaemonism, utilitarianism, and ethical evolutionism. Naturalism was a leading principle of 17th- and 18th-century European Enlightenment thought, which proceeded from the notion of some nonhistoric nature of man (concepts of “natural man,” natural society, natural morality, natural law).

Dialectical and historical materialism surmounts the naturalistic approach to man and society, which to varying degrees is typical of all forms of metaphysical materialism, and it affirms the specific character of the laws of sociohistoric development, which are not reducible to abstract and immutable “natural” elements.


Karimskii, A. M. Filosofiia amerikanskogo naturalizma. Moscow, 1972.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a. a movement, esp in art and literature, advocating detailed realistic and factual description, esp that in 19th-century France in the writings of the novelists Emile Zola (1840--1902), Gustave Flaubert (1821--80), etc.
b. the characteristics or effects of this movement
2. a school of painting or sculpture characterized by the faithful imitation of appearances for their own sake
3. the belief that all religious truth is based not on revelation but rather on the study of natural causes and processes
4. Philosophy
a. a scientific account of the world in terms of causes and natural forces that rejects all spiritual, supernatural, or teleological explanations
b. the meta-ethical thesis that moral properties are reducible to natural ones, or that ethical judgments are derivable from nonethical ones
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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