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Conceptualizing Nature: Is it Just Beyond the Door?

Lee Smitherman
Brent Bell, Ph.D.
Article Date:  February 27, 2017


Widely varying values and intentions of what it means to be in nature and constituted of natural elements has led to these words being used to describe products and built environments often with little consideration.  Even in the programs relying on these places to operate, the term nature is used with a certain level of ambiguity.  As a result, such confusion can lead to discounted value for what it means to be in nature.  This paper argues the need for a conceptualization of the term, striving to provide a common answer to the question, what is nature?  An etymological inquiry was performed to provide a starting point for the analysis.  Additionally, a database search was conducted to determine the ways in which those contributing to our understanding of the phenomena currently interpret its meaning.  Conclusions based on the conceptual analysis and inquiry into the meaning of what nature is suggest that our understanding is primarily determined by assessing the level of human influence as a method to determine natural from unnatural.  

Keywords: nature, natural, conceptual analysis

For millennia, the complexity of the relationship between humans and the natural world has perplexed those of us who desire to better understand it.  What makes nature, nature?  Where is nature and what does it consist of?  Moreover, our increased and use of the term and its derivatives to describe everything from consumable products to city parks has relegated nature to an ambiguous and often misused word.  As a result of this overuse, the term natural has become just as ambiguous as its root. 

In describing areas that have not been altered by human influence, we often use the term natural.  For many of these areas their designation as natural is a result of analyzing its contents.  For example, when assessing the landscape of an urban park, we can look at it from a macro perspective and see a human-created environment meant to mimic certain other types of natural ecosystems.  Additionally, a well-manicured ornamental lawn or garden can be assessed in this manner with the same result.  However, upon closer inspection, we often find the overwhelming evidence that suggests many such areas are anything but natural: selectively bred ornamental plants, trees that have been altered to not produce seeds, landscapes that would never exist if not for extensive irrigation networks, and often having a significantly lower level of biodiversity compared to their more natural inspiration.  In these places, if we look close enough, we often see our own desires for the environment as the primary shaping force rather than those of nature.  In this manner, mono-scaped local parks, farms, and even empty urban lots inhabited by highly opportunistic plant species are frivolously classified as natural areas. 

However, very few in the outdoor industry would label such spaces as particularly valuable or rich with potential for encounters with the natural world.  This argument is not meant to devalue the express purposes of such spaces, but rather help differentiate them from the values we find in nature.  As part of that delineation we have created a plethora of terms that help us classify such spaces by their use and potential for use: green spaces, open spaces, wilderness areas, recreation areas, and natural areas to name a few.  Classifying these spaces in this way, the focus shifts from their constituent parts to the potential for differing levels of experiences with the natural world and activities we rely on unhindered natural will to fulfill. 

Further complicating our conceptualization of such places are the varying values assigned to them.  For example, many have argued that time spent in and amongst the natural environment can ameliorate the affects of acute mental issues as well as speed the recovery during hospital stays (Logan & Selhub, 2012; Ulrich, 1984.)  In addition to the vast contributions to exploring nature and our relationship to it made popular by E.O. Wilson, Richard Louvre, Stephen Kellert, and C.G. Jung, to name a few, many individuals have experiences with nature that can often leave them mystified about their connection to the natural world. 

Consequently, given the level of ambiguity generated from our broad use of nature and the vastly different values we have assigned to it, there exists much debate about how nature best serves humans, developed or preserved?  Is nature simply a means by which to expand the development of the human domain?  Or does it, in fact, contain inherent value beyond the uses and values we assign to it?  What does nature consist of?  Is there, in fact, more to the human/nature connection than what appears on the surface?  Are we a part of the natural world or is it the natural world a part of us?  To explore our connection to nature and the complications that arise from trying to answer these questions, a clearer understanding of the term is needed.


Nature, naturally, is a part of all of us.  We’re surrounded by it and we live amongst it.  In general, nature is often thought of as the driving force of life, hence, Mother Nature.  At the micro level, electrons, neutrons, and protons are involved in an ever-expansive orchestra of forming bonds that create the building blocks for life on our planet.  However, at the macro level we see an entirely different type of nature, one that commands all the natural processes on our planet.  At this level, the moon, stars, and even other galaxies vastly influence the activity that commands life on Earth.  The earliest recorded use of a word that describes this is phusis or physis.  Famed French structural linguist and semiotician Émile Benveniste defines phusis as the “(completed) realization of a becoming – that is to say, the nature [of a thing] as it is realized, with all its properties.” (as cited in Naddaf, 2005). 

This early concept of the modern term (derived from natura, the Latin translation of phusis) is still evident in the understanding of concepts we have developed around the term today.  Alongside these attempts to study and understand the physical processes of nature, we have developed a wide variety of concepts centered on our relationship to it, especially as our understanding of nature pertains to the human condition.  In the process, we have seen our understanding of the term nature and the environments we use it to describe grow ever and ever ambiguous.  However, the most recent conceptualizations, as well as philosophical debates, centered around our understanding of nature and our connection to it include one thing, contrast to the human domain. 

In this way, nature and its subsequent classifications (e.g. recreation areas vs. wilderness areas) can be understood by assessing the level of human influence on the various environments.  Thus, working within this conceptualization we can view our understanding of nature as existing on a continuum.  That is, the lesser human influence an area has, the more natural it becomes.

However, as our species finds new ways to blur the lines between what is natural and what is not, classifying an area based on the naturalness of its constituent parts becomes increasingly problematic.  What must be done is to find a way to delineate between what is nature and what is not.  If we believe that naturalness is determined by contrasting what is natural to what is not, then to determine what nature is, we must be willing to determine what makes it not nature.  One way to accomplish this is by removing the part of the classification that obscures its naturalness in the first place, humanity.  Viewing nature this way not only makes it easier to determine what is nature and what is not, but also assists in determining what it is about nature that makes it possible to have such vastly different values and purposes assigned to it.  In this manner, going to nature becomes less about experiencing the parts that make up the whole and more about experiencing that which makes it nature to begin with, its lack of us.


With protected natural areas existing on every one of the Earth’s seven continents, it’s difficult to argue against the idea that nature possesses intrinsic value and worth.  What can and has been argued is that anything with natural constituents represents nature and therefore has equal value to areas where nature’s will goes unimpeded.  Viewing nature in this manner may have negative consequences as it limits our ability to continue experiencing and discovering new meanings to the human/nature relationship.

With the need to shelter and feed the world population comes pressure to develop our natural areas into housing, pastures, and farmlands.  As a result, governments are increasingly being forced to decide between preserving these areas and developing them to help provide economic opportunities and means for acquiring a higher standard of living for their citizens.  Not completely disregarding what nature may have to offer, many try to meet the need for continued opportunities to experience these areas by approving them for an increasing number of uses.  However, a consequence of increasing the number of approved activities for a natural area may decrease its potential to benefit individuals in ways we don’t yet fully understand. 


Our current understanding and use of the term nature and its derivatives has become increasingly complex as humanity finds new ways to distance itself from its biological heritage.  As a result, our conceptualization of nature has become increasingly exclusive of human involvement.  Consequently, nature as a place of refuge and restoration has lost some value among certain domains of popular culture while gaining popularity as a means to market a variety of products.  Together, these phenomena have created an air of ambiguity centered on the concept.  To allow for continued exploration and understanding into the human/nature relationship, a new conceptualization of nature was needed.  Etymological and conceptual analysis of the term led to an increased understanding that we currently categorize areas based on the level of human influence.  This leads to an understanding of nature that supports the need to conserve areas for specific types of outdoor recreation, but also for the potential of exploring and discovering new meanings and values of nature in our lives.


Naddaf, G. (2005). The Greek Concept of Nature. State University of New York Press: Albany, NY.

Logan, A. C., Selhub, E. M. (2012). Vis medicatrix naturae: Does nature “minister to the mind”?. BIOPSYCHOSOCIAL MEDICINE, 6(11), 1-10. Retrieved from                          https://www.bpsmedicine.com/content/6/1/11

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View from a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224 (4647), 420-421. Retrieved from             https://mdc.mo.gov/sites/default/files/resources/2012/10/ulrich.pdf

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