"Attention and the Values of Nature in the Enlightenment"

by Lorraine Daston

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin


To find value in nature is often to seek values from nature. What was the subtle alchemy that converted the eighteenth-century naturalist's intense appreciation of nature into the normative authority of nature--moral, religious, and aesthetic? Nature's authority famously expanded during the Enlightenment, serving as the ultimate standard by which government, law, religion, ethics, and art were judged. Natural law jurisprudence, neoclassical aesthetics, state-of-nature political theory, doctrines of natural virtue, and natural theology all invoked "Nature" (whose vast empire invited personification) as their bedrock justification. But whence nature's almost boundless authority, which by the late eighteenth century overruled crown and church, custom and law? My aim is to uncover some of the sources and workings of self-evidence, rather than of argued justification, in the case of the normative authority of nature in the Enlightenment. More specifically, I shall argue that valorization was built into highly elaborated modes of attention, observation, and description applied to natural objects. Which objects to study and how to study them: the choices made by naturalists already expressed a hierarchy of values about naturalia, the discipline of the mind and senses, and the investment of time, labor, and capital. Their choices often clashed with prevailing value codes, as the sharp criticism of contemporaries bears witness. Values also saturated the ways in which the naturalists observed and described their objects inquiry, in obvious and subtle ways: "there be gods even here". I shall be particularly concerned with how the appreciation of the beauty and the function of certain features of organic nature--the underside of a leaf, the artery of a worm, the tongue of a bee--merged in an immediate and pleasurable perception. In the painstaking observations of the naturalists, the argument from design became not so much an argument from evidence as an experience of self-evidence.